July 13, 2020

Pastoral counselor says that service is an `expression of my faith’

They come individually — or perhaps with a spouse or family. They bring with them issues related to marriage and family, career problems, alcohol or drug abuse, incest, family violence, bereavement, spirituality or a hundred other things.

They want guidance from a trained professional, but they also believe that religious principles should be an important component of the counseling. While most pastors and ministers do a certain amount of counseling, many of them have schedules which prevent them from making commitments for long-term counseling.

Or people may need guidance from someone with more specialized training. They may try certified pastoral counseling.

One such counseling service is Penobscot Valley Pastoral Counseling, founded in 1987 by a United Methodist minister, the Rev. Alta Chase Brown.

Just a few months away from earning a doctorate in pastoral counseling, Brown is a woman who knows about possibilities. Not so many years ago, she was a young mother with three small sons and no college education.

She didn’t know what would come next, but she had “been thinking about Christian counseling” even then — thoughts that perhaps took root back when she became “an alive Christian” at about age 25.

The training for what she does today began “with one English course,” she recalled. She acquired a two-year degree in human services and mental health at a Massachusetts college first, and, after returning to Maine, earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine. Along the way, she was a teaching associate in a program to help train American Indians to be alcoholism counselors for their own people.

There are advantages to starting school later, Brown believes. “You bring some maturity to it.”

She decided to attend Bangor Theological Seminary for a master of divinity degree. In religious life, she had been “very involved interdenominationally. As far as I was concerned, that’s where the action is.” Brown had done a lot of group counseling informally, but felt the need to “be put in a particular harness to serve.” Then, too, she felt “directed or guided to connect with my roots in the Methodist Church.”

The desire to pursue counseling through her church required her to be ordained, and to have three years of full-time parish ministry. Brown served United Methodist churches in Orrington from 1982 to 1984, and in Searsport and North Searsport from 1984 to 1987.

Next came her counseling service in Hampden.

Foremost, she said, “it is a ministry — an expression of my faith. It is a response of the Church — the wider church — reaching out through me.”

The location feels right to Brown, who was born in Hampden. Clients come “from Belfast to Orono — and farther away.” She has served churches in the area, studied here, and continues to work with churches and community groups.

Though she founded the service herself, “accountability is really important to me,” she said. So Brown continues to seek input and evaluation from others.

In her own denomination, her ministry is an appointment by her bishop. There is also an ecumenical advisory board, comprising local clergy and laypeople of various faiths. Denis Noonan, a clinical consultant, has been a primary supervisor of the service’s clinical work.

In addition to Brown’s training in substance-abuse counseling and clinical pastoral education, she has been endorsed by the UMC National Division of Chaplains and Related Ministries, and joined the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

The counseling service offers a men’s spirituality group, led by John Yasenchak. Brown has been involved in educational workshops in the community on such issues as substance abuse and family communications.

But the primary focus of the service is its clients, the people Brown counsels. More than 250 people have used the service since its beginning in 1987.

Each situation is different. “Sometimes I pray with people,” she said, but it’s not mandatory. “They may ask,” she said.

Brown is conscious of the fact that when the counseling goes well, not all the credit goes to her training and education. God’s grace may play a part, too, she admitted. “I do feel that,” she said. Her thought sometimes is “Isn’t it a wonder?”

“Especially working with a couple where there can be broken communications … will there be a spark that takes place?” she asked. For a counselor working with an individual or a couple, the question is “Can you develop a relationship of trust?”

The education and training a counselor receives “enhance all of that,” she said, but it’s still important to remember, “You’re not God. You can’t make things happen.”

Some of the people who come to Brown are referred by other clients, but many times it is a pastor or minister who makes the referral. There are expenses for counseling services, and fees are charged.

Churches, as well as individuals, sometimes contribute to a fee assistance fund which can help lower the cost to the client. Brown explained that when such gifts are received, they are used in their entirety to reduce fees when needed, and none of the money goes to administrative or other costs.

It has been quite a journey for Brown, from young mother with no college education to pastoral counselor who is doing what she loves — using her training and spirituality to help people improve their lives.

“I’m interested in the whole person — what’s going on inside,” she said. “It’s an exciting moment to see the light bulb come on.”

Penobscot Valley Pastoral Counseling is located at 17 Western Ave. in Hampden, telephone 862-2331.

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