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Religious counselors need only a sponsor

You, too, can be a religious counselor _ whether you've been trained or not, and regardless of whether you've been in prison. All you have to do is find a "legally cognizable church, denomination or sect" to sponsor you.

No one is sure how much ground that covers. Does it include nontraditional groups such as Scientology or the Moonies? And what about the Universal Life Church, the California group that sells ministerial certificates for as little as $10, and once even ordained a dog?

Mental-health experts say it's dangerous to have untrained counselors guiding troubled souls through serious, even life-threatening crises.

"We've got a huge loophole that needs to be closed," said Larry Shyers, chairman of the state board that licenses and disciplines mental-health counselors.

But no one thinks it would be easy to plug the hole in the law. "You start monkeying around with God and that gets touchy," said Bob Hall, executive director of the Florida Psychological Association.

Licensure, they say, benefits the public in two ways: It assures that counselors have been trained in accredited programs and have passed a state exam, and it enables state investigators to check out complaints.

The Department of Professional Regulation can do nothing when it receives a complaint about an unlicensed religious counselor. Agency officials say several cases have been closed for lack of authority to pursue them, but they cannot discuss them because of confidentiality laws.

On April 7, in a collection of articles about Florida's "mental-health minefield," the St. Petersburg Times described how difficult it is for patients to decipher the qualifications of a counselor.

Under current law, an untrained person can treat vulnerable patients as long as he or she uses a generic title such as "counselor" or "therapist" rather than a title protected by law (psychologist, marriage and family therapist, etc.).

And those who are licensed can ignore a state board's suspension and legally keep practicing.

A tougher law that would solve some of these problems has been placed on hold until 1995. Even then, it will exempt more people than it covers. One of the remaining exemptions is for religious counselors.

All mental-health counselors in private practice _ religious or not _ should be licensed, says David Swindall, a Presbyterian minister and licensed marriage and family therapist in Clearwater.

"I think that if ministers are going to function beyond their capacity as ministers of the church and do therapy . . . there should be some kind of regulation of that for protection of the public," he said.

Swindall, past president of the Pinellas Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, said it's not enough to just have a good heart and want to help people.

"The churches believe if you're a Christian and you're sincere and (have) interest and minimal training, you're in good hands. That's just not the case," he said. "They're not aware of the depth of the disturbances in a person, and they may miss some real dangerous things."

In addition, he said, some denominations believe women must be subservient to men, so those counselors might influence women to stay in abusive situations.

But some religious counselors say it's unconstitutional for the state to require that they be licensed. Their profession must remain exempt to protect the separation between church and state, said Kenneth Gary Talbot, president of the Florida Federation of Christian Colleges and Schools.

"The First Amendment can't force people into a certain mold," he said.

Talbot is developing an accreditation program for religious counselors that would evaluate their training and require passage of a standardized test on therapeutic techniques. Even if he accomplishes that, it will be voluntary.

Tampa Bay has a 16-member Network of Christian Counseling Centers that offers therapists who hold state licenses. In addition to their studies in Christian psychotherapy, they have graduate degrees from accredited universities and training in conventional therapy techniques.

Director Harold Wahking said the network serves 18 churches in a half-dozen denominations. Network counselors work with about 500 clients a week.

While it's not proper for the state to dictate what goes on inside a church, he said, counselors who forgo proper training are shortchanging their clients.

Wahking said if he were seeking counseling, his first question would be whether the therapist has a state license. "If they say no," he said, "I'm looking for the door."