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WASHINGTON – Mental health therapists most often leave issues of faith outside their office doors, even for patients who are religious. But one class of counselors believes a nonsectarian model doesn’t serve everyone equally well.

“On a feeling level, people want a safe, respectful place, to ponder the tons of questions that come begging in hard times,” said Glenn Williams, a pastoral counselor in Kentucky and chair of the Kentucky Association of Pastoral Counselors. “Where is God? Why did this happen? Is it karma, sowing-reaping, happenstance? What purpose does this suffering serve?”

Williams, who works at the St. Matthew’s Pastoral Counseling Center outside Louisville, said many of his patients are quite “intentional” about their preference for pastoral counselors over other mental health professionals.

Kentucky recently became the sixth state (joining Arkansas, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Tennessee) to allow pastoral counselors to become licensed mental health counselors.

Kathy Milans, a pastoral counselor in Wilmore and chairman of the Kentucky Board of Licensure for Pastoral Counselors, said many pastoral counselors wanted the new law so they would be on an equal footing with other mental health professionals. “It just moved us up a notch professionally,” she said.

But some are skeptical. Martin Cortez Wesley, chairman of the Kentucky Board of Licensed Professional Counselors, said he wasn’t opposed to the new law but was puzzled by it. “To me, pastoral counseling is just a specialization,” he said. “We have specialization for people who counsel Latinos, but we don’t have separate licensing for counseling Latinos. I don’t see why they want it here.”

Douglas Ronsheim, executive director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, said efforts to pass licensing laws in some other states, including Pennsylvania and New York, failed in part because clergy feared it might prevent them from providing the spiritual counseling they regard as essential to their calling.

But many pastoral counselors regard themselves as just another stripe of mental health professional, a group that includes licensed mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Most pastoral counselors operate outside of churches, and may see patients of different faiths.

Whatever their particular beliefs, spirituality is central to many Americans’ lives. For some of them, pastoral counseling can be the most effective approach, Ronsheim said.

And demand is only expected to increase, thanks to mandates for mental health benefits in the Affordable Care Act and the implementation of the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.