Interview with Dr. Eric Brown, Mental Health Counseling Professor

Dr. Eric Brown received his BS in Psychology from Texas A&M University (College Station), M.Div. from Abilene Christian University, M.Ed. & Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Florida, and PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. He started as an Assistant Professor at Mental Health Counseling and Behavioral Medicine Program in the Boston University School of Medicine this fall. He is also a practicing mental health counselor and has worked in various clinical settings. Read more about him here. Photo of Dr. Eric Brown.

We sat down with Dr. Brown to ask him about his experiences as someone who is both seminary-educated and a mental health counselor.

STH Prophet: How did you grow up? What’s your faith background?

Dr. Brown: I grew up in Texas. My mother worked in the public school system. She was an educator and a principal in the public school system. My dad was a bi-vocational pastor, like most black pastors are in the US. He worked full time for General Motors, and he would pastor small black churches that really couldn’t afford a full time pastor. 

I grew up in small black non-denominational churches that were part of the American Restoration movement. I’m a church boy. My maternal grandfather was also a bi-vocational pastor, so that type of work was the family business in some ways. 

STH Prophet: When you were in high school, did you see yourself following in that?

Dr. Brown: Not at all. I was a little too cool when I was in high school. I knew I was not going to do that. I felt like I would serve the church in some way, maybe be an elder in a church, maybe teach Sunday school back when Sunday school was still a thing. I figured I would do that, when I was in high school. 

It wasn’t until I went to undergraduate school and started going to this small black church. They needed someone to help them. They had an older black minister who was driving in two hours every Sunday. 

Just teach Sunday school, and preach. Again, these were just small black churches.

STH Prophet: Where did you go for undergrad?

Dr. Brown: I went to Texas A&M.

Started going to a small black church, and they needed help. They needed somebody to help preach on Sunday evenings. They had a Sunday evening service. They needed someone to teach. They had a Wednesday night Bible class. 

There were a few college students, a few of us at the church, and a friend of mine jumped right in. They knew I was a preacher’s kid, and they said why don’t you help out. 

I started preaching young. I was a freshman in college when I started preaching Sunday evenings every other week. By my junior year I was preaching just about every Sunday evening. 

So that’s what led me to seminary. I was visiting this seminary during the breaks between semesters. I would drive to a seminary and audit Bible classes. Professors talked to me and said, why don’t you go to seminary after you graduate? Why don’t you come up here?

My dad was willing to help me out with that.

I got up there and I was going to get a shorter master’s degree, but some professors really took to me and they gave me full tuition to do the MDiv. They were actually hoping I would do the MDiv and then go and do a PhD and possibly come back and teach. 

But by the time I was a sophomore in college, I knew I wanted to be a professor, but I knew I wanted to be a professor at a secular university. I knew I wanted to be a mental health therapist. My going to seminary straight after undergrad, that was just to learn how to serve the church better. It was not, at least in my mind, not a career path.

STH Prophet: So more of a personal spiritual growth endeavor?

Dr. Brown: It was. I knew I was going to serve the church. I had grown up in these small black churches, and they needed people to be there to serve. And I had this model of bi-vocational ministry. So your full time job wasn’t getting paid by the church, you did something else. But you had this desire, this passion, to serve the black church.

So when I graduated from undergrad, my idea was I would go to seminary for a couple years, and then I’d probably get a doctorate in some mental health counseling field. So that was my plan. I ended up staying in seminary a little bit longer, three and a half years, to do the MDiv. 

Eventually I did do that, got a doctoral degree in the field of counseling.

Greta: So you started out by saying you wanted to be a mental health counselor. But did seminary in any way change how you viewed the desire to do mental health counseling, or the path you wanted to take?

Dr. Brown: No, it didn’t change that.

What happened was, my freshman and sophomore year of college, I ended up really getting that vision to be bi-vocational. So as a teenager, I wouldn’t want to be a bi-vocational anything. I was just going to keep going to church, and I might help out a little. But when I became a freshman, sophomore in undergrad, and I started preaching at this small church, that’s when I got this calling to serve the church in a leadership role.

But given my background, my dad and my grandfather both being bi-vocational pastors, and my mother worked in the public school system, that didn’t alter my passion and my vision for having a vocation, a calling outside of the church where I could serve people who didn’t share my specific belief. I still had that calling as well, and I wanted that to be my full time work. And then I would learn what I used in seminary as a way to serve the church, whatever churches I was a part of. 

STH Prophet: Where do you see faith in your work in your work as a counselor? So not in the church, but out in the world?

Dr. Brown: The contemplative Christian tradition has been really important to me. I know BU School of Theology, they really love Howard Thurman. 

Thurman has been important to me, as well as some other contemplative thinkers. If you’re a contemplative, it’s easy to view God and faith in your work in a secular context. Practicing the presence of God is one of my goals every day. Try to live my day aware of being in God’s presence.

So both as a professor who trains mental health counseling students, as well as a mental health counselor, what I try to do, and I am able to do this, is to see the Divine Image, both in my students and my colleagues, and the clients that I see. And I’m able to do that. I have great students and some great colleagues, and I really enjoy working with the clients.

STH Prophet: What do you think is the best part of your job, and what’s the hardest part of your job?

Dr. Brown: As a professor, the best part is mentoring students. I love being able to do that. Also there’s a creative element, in being able to write and do research on what I feel called to do. I really love engaging in that area. I study interracial trust, I study burnout in different health professionals, pastors, counselors, teachers.

As a mental health counselor, when I work with clients, the best part of my job is being invited into some of those secret, personal spaces. 

In terms of challenges, as a counselor probably my biggest challenge is just sitting with the pain of clients, and being willing to sit with the pain and not always try to fix things. And that’s a challenge of pastors as well. 

And as a professor, probably one of the biggest challenges is to try to teach my students to sit with the pain of their clients. We come into this field because we want to end pain, we don’t want people to suffer. But suffering as a human is inevitable. And a lot of times what helps to alleviate suffering is being a, quote unquote therapeutic presence with others. And you have to do that day in and day out, whenever you meet with your clients. And that’s a challenge.

STH Prophet: Do you have any advice for current MDiv students? The School of Theology offers a dual degree with social work, so a lot of students are interested in being in the mental health counseling sphere. 

Dr. Brown: For those who recognize that they’re gifted pastorally, I think counseling or social work is a great fit. It allows for a much broader ministry, to care for or to serve those who may not share their belief. I think the Danielsen Institute really provides some really good examples of people who are doing that.

In my experience, I finished seminary about 20 years ago, and just over time I saw so many of my classmates who went into full time ministry jobs get burned out or wanted to leave at certain points. But if they didn’t have another career, it was hard for them to do that. I think counseling or social work is a natural fit for many people who are in seminary.

My dad and grandfather both would always say what they enjoyed about being bi-vocational pastors is they could serve the church exactly how they felt called to serve. They didn’t have to put up with stuff they didn’t want to put up with.

STH Prophet: Do you have any advice on being bi-vocational?

Dr. Brown: It’s going to be different based on what station in life you’re in and how many other responsibilities one has. My main advice is really to practice some of the contemplative spiritual practices. There’s more discernment that’s needed if you’re bi-vocational in any way. Your time is limited. You can’t do it all. Really try and listen and discern what is yours to do, what is your specific calling, I think that’s important. 

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