Christians close to ‘regulation by reputation’ for pastors

A broad alliance of Christian churches is in the final stages of setting up a system of voluntary ethical oversight for “religious practitioners” — just as Parliament is to start considering a controversial compulsory licensing scheme for religious institutions and their leaders.

The voluntary oversight system will not directly prevent pastors from urging their congregations to drink petrol, eat grass or have insecticide sprayed in their faces — all of which have been documented. But while the proposed licensing system will probably be mired in politics and legal action, the Christian tradition hopes to start getting its house in order almost immediately.

“We can at least give people the tools to tell the difference between the people who take advantage in the name of religion and real spiritual counsellors,” says Hannes van der Walt of the Association of Christian Religious Practitioners (ACRP).

That plan has buy-in from the majority of Christian formations across established and new churches. Supporters include the South African Council of Churches, the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, the Council of African Independent Churches and the United African Federation of Churches.

The ACRP was formally registered in 2015. Its predecessor organisations have, since the early 1990s, sought a way to establish religious practice as a profession, complete with standards and oversight.

Attempts at doing so under the Health Professions Council of South Africa failed, because a single set of rules applying to spiritual counsellors and psychologists would be too much of a stretch. An effort to classify religious practitioners as a type of social worker likewise ran aground.

In the meantime, the need for a Christian professional oversight body had grown acute.

By the best available estimates — by academics and Statistics SA — there are some 200 000 Christian pastors active in South Africa, and the evangelical sector continues to grow fast. By contrast there are fewer than 20 000 social workers, with a target of having 60 000 in service by 2030. For most South Africans, it seems, counselling and guidance is overwhelmingly provided by church leaders, and that is not going to change any time soon.

Social workers are qualified but only 5% of pastors are thought to have access to training of any kind. An even smaller fraction have actual training in counselling people who have experienced trauma and grief.

And not all pastors are benevolent.

“The Doom [preacher] and the snake-eaters are the more spectacular misuses; but there are many ways in which spiritual counselling can be misused, ways people can be influenced,” says Van der Walt. “We know the community has to be protected against people who are doing dangerous and damaging stuff, and there is no mechanism for control.”

The constitutional body, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) agrees entirely. After yet another story of gross abuses made headlines in April, the commission promised to lobby Parliament for a strict licensing regime on churches and their leaders — a regime that would make it illegal to act as a religious leader without the requisite paperwork.

“Our point of departure is that, as a pastor, you must be licensed; we must register you, so that when your elders say ‘you are no longer fit to be one of us’, then we can say we are revoking your licence, you can’t preach here anymore, go find another job somewhere,” CRL chair Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said in April.

Efforts to convince Parliament to legislate that plan are due to start this month.

Various individual pastors and smaller church groups have already promised to oppose such a licensing system outright. Larger formations have expressed support for the idea of weeding out offenders, but still have deep concerns about licences to preach.

The ACRP, for its part, is acutely sensitive to the possibility of a showdown between church and state, and wants nothing to do with it.

“We are a service organisation, not a controlling organisation,” says Van der Walt. “We are not working towards a licence to practice; we feel that will impinge on religious freedom and freedom of association.”

The ACRP is also scrupulously avoiding any hint that it will seek to interfere with the training provided by established churches in private seminaries, or with tertiary education in theology.

Instead, it plans to provided training to various types of religious practitioners and professionals already in the business, using the same frameworks set up for more mundane professional sectors.

In May the South African Qualifications Authority (Saqa) published its evaluation of the ACRP as a professional body, one of the last steps before it becomes duly registered under the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). That framework, enacted in 2008, created a system that all but demands that professions — even ones rooted in faith and belief — should have professional bodies to deal with norms and standards.

At the same time the ACRP applied to register its first four professional designations. In law these are no different from qualifications available to plumbers or administrators, though the required skills are somewhat out of the ordinary.

To qualify as an NQF level-four “religious practitioner”, for instance, will require three years in ministry or 15 hours of supervised pastoral care. Practitioners will have to show their ability to “help members develop a Christian lifestyle” as well as prove they have a grasp on “generic guidance and counselling skills such as compassionate, active and responsive listening”.

Once qualified, a religions practitioner will have to prove engagement in continuous professional development activities, some of which must deal with ethics, human rights and appropriate laws.

They will also be subject to a complaint mechanism.

“Once someone is affiliated with us, and this person does something a member of the public feels aggrieved about, that person can come to the ACRP and lay a complaint,” says Van der Walt. “We have an ethics and disciplinary committee and if on a proper investigation we find a complaint holds ground, then we will withdraw affiliation.”

It is not much of a sanction, compared to the plan from the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, but the ACRP hopes to mount a big educational campaign to urge Christians to look out for its qualifications, and demand their leaders be affiliated. Then, it hopes, it will achieve “regulation by reputation, not coercion”.

The cause will be helped if the large number of church groups that have expressed their support for the plan preach the message from the pulpit.

Self-regulation may also be enhanced if other faith traditions follow suit. Both law and regulation seek to prevent the “proliferation of professional bodies”, but the ACRP is strictly limited to the Christian faith, whether in its staid traditional or more Pentecostal flavour. Saqa has already expressed its willingness to consider recognition applications from other faiths, and the ACRP says it would be happy to help.

“We’ve already made all the mistakes getting here,” says Van der Walt. “We are from Christians, for Christians, but if others have a need to do the same thing, we can help them avoid the pitfalls.”

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author

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