Confessions of an Underground Minister

Underground minister Cat Saunders

“When you are born, your work is placed in your heart.”  —Kahlil Gibran

By Cat Saunders

When the horrors of slavery were still in full force in the United States, the Underground Railroad formed to smuggle black people out of the South. The name Underground Railroad did not refer to underground trains. Rather, it referred to the fact that transporting slaves was done undercover. It was illegal in the South to help slaves escape.

Working for the Underground Railroad was extremely risky. It required total dedication to the ideal of freedom. People who helped with the Underground Railroad had regular jobs. But they knew that their work to free slaves was the most important thing they did.

For me, being an underground minister is like that. I have my regular work as a writer, counselor, and teacher. But my most important work is the work I do as a minister. Truthfully speaking, I’m serving as a minister in all the work I do.

I call myself an underground minister because this work is more “undercover” than my other work. I also use this term because my “ministry” is about helping “slaves” to get free. Most people, myself included, are slaves to something. We’re slaves to work, relationships, comfort, control, pride, perfectionism, personal growth, or a whole host of other habits or addictions.

Getting free is about moving away from compulsive behavior toward behavior that is truly supportive of self and others. Needless to say, getting free is a long process. My part is to serve as a way station of support for people who want to get free. I serve in this way just as Underground Railroad workers passed slaves from one supportive household to another along the way to safety.

Good Girls Finish Last

I used to think that my desire to help was about being altruistic or humanitarian or a good girl, even. I was wrong. The fact is, I offer support to those who want to get free because this also helps me get free.

I’m happy when my efforts help others on their way to “free states.” However, the bald-faced truth is that I wouldn’t help anyone if it didn’t also help me. This includes those instances where I would sacrifice my life in order to save another person. Why, then, does it feel scary to tell the truth about this?

It’s scary because in many cultures, there’s a prevailing belief that the highest form of service is selfless service. “Putting others first” has been elevated to an extreme.  So much so that people often feel guilty or ashamed if they think of themselves at all, much less first.

No wonder we’re a nation of addicts! When people are smoking cigarettes, gulping coffee, or drinking yet another beer, they’re having something that’s “just for me.” These creature comforts are indulged in a way that’s socially acceptable in a society that demonizes selfishness.

Good girls finish last. Good boys do, too. Why not throw a wrench in the works and be “good” in a new way–one that gives the self equal status with others?

True Self-Care

Renowned physician and author Bernie Siegel said: “If children don’t receive healthy love, they search for a love they can control; they develop addictions to gain what wasn’t available from parents.”

I think he’s right. What, then, is the solution, once people grow up? The solution is for people to care for themselves the way a truly loving parent would care for a child.

Making self-care a priority does not preclude caring for others. In fact, the most giving people I know are those who also take exceptionally good care of themselves. Why should giving necessarily involve self-sacrifice?

That outdated belief is based on an assumption of scarcity. It’s based on the idea that there can never be enough love for self AND another, so one must lose. I don’t buy it. In extreme situations, self-sacrifice has its place. But as a general mode of operation, it’s unsustainable.

Those who are always focused on others often neglect their own self-care. This sets up unhealthy relationship dynamics that require others to become caretakers for the “all-giving” one. If you’re focused on putting others first, there will always be others, so your turn will never come!

You Can Trust Your Heart

Many people are afraid that if they put themselves first, they’ll get lost in gluttonous self-indulgence. They’re afraid that if they consider self-care, they’ll never think about anyone else, much less want to be of service. I challenge that belief, realizing that some people will therefore write me off as yet another byproduct of the “me” generation.

Actually, I have no respect for the infantile and irresponsible style of the “me” generation. The endless pursuit of self-gratificationwithout regard for othersis a far cry from the compassionate self-care I endorse.

Basically, my ministry is very simple. It’s about helping people get free of any beliefs that stand in the way of trusting their own hearts. People needn’t be guilt-tripped or admonished to care for others. In fact, guilt actually contributes to a pendulum-swing back toward self-indulgent compulsive behavior. And self-indulgent compulsive behavior is the antithesis of true self-care.

Frankly, the human heart will never be satisfied with caring only for the self. For one thing, it makes no sense for a highly social speciesnamely, humansto be disinterested in caring for each other. Sure, there are pathological exceptions, but the typical human can be trusted to care for others AND the self.

The most effective way to nurture this trust is to encourage mutually considerate self-care. A person whose needs are met will naturally want to help others get their needs met, too. This is hard-wired into our cells, because it helps us survive as a species.

In the Closet or Out?

I wasn’t always outspoken about my “ministry of the heart.” For many years, I was in the closet about being a minister. After years of work as a counselor for various mental health agencies, I went into private practice in 1985.

My practice included shamanic healing, breathwork, and Reiki as well as more conventional forms of therapy. Therefore, my professional advisors recommended that I become certified as a minister. That way, I would be legally protected to do hands-on healing work. I applied for and received my first ministerial ordination for professional reasons. But many years passed before I acknowledged ministerial work as part of my calling.

Frankly, my radical-rebel nature was rather embarrassed about being a minister. It sounded so stodgy! It didn’t help that some of my colleagues looked down on this form of certification. They said it was only for people who weren’t good enough to get “real” certification as a professional.

Such criticism stung, particularly since I had more credentials and training than most of my detractors. Even so, I didn’t really understand how badly uninformed those people were about the power and validity of my choice. Mel Suhd changed all that for me many years later, when I met him in 1993.

Mel Suhd: Educator and Minister Extraordinaire

Author, educator, and university-founder Melvin Suhd came into my life through Lucia Capacchione. I had interviewed Lucia, a noted teacher and author, many years earlier. She is most well-known for her pioneering research with creativity and nondominant-hand work.

When I noticed a “Ph.D.” after Lucia’s name on one of her books, I thought, “Wow! If Lucia found a doctoral program humane enough for her, that’s the one for me!” When I called her to ask about it, she raved about her doctoral program. She also positively gushed about her doctoral mentor, Mel Suhd.

Mel is the founder and president of the Association for the Integration of the Whole Person (AIWP). AIWP is recognized by the federal government as a nonprofit religious entity. For decades, AIWP has been certifying ministers. It has also sponsored several “University Without Walls” programs such as Summit University, where Lucia and I completed our doctoral work.

When I first heard about Summit University, I feared it was some fly-by-night operation. However, I checked it out and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was an established, internationally recognized university. It was founded from and grew out of Mel’s many decades of innovative work in alternative higher education.

Many well-known people whom I respect had graduated from AIWP-sponsored universities. These include Anaïs Nin and Natalie Rogers (daughter of Carl Rogers). In addition, AIWP has certified thousands of ministers from all walks of life, including musician Kenny Loggins.

To make a long story short, I had the privilege of working directly with Mel throughout my doctoral research and dissertation. My dissertation focused on the “missing link” between eating disorders and functional neurology. It was through the course of my doctoral studies that I learned about AIWP. And it was through AIWP that I applied for and received my most meaningful ordination as a minister.

The Best Form of Protection

The ministerial application and information packet from AIWP is extremely thorough. It will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about ministerial certification and U.S. laws concerning the separation of church and state. The application also requires written documentation of extensive supervised training in one’s area of expertise. This area of expertise, such as counseling, should be the discipline in which the applicant plans to serve as a minister.

In my service as a minister through AIWP, I feel fortunate to have found an organization whose credo, requirements, and style are expansive and inclusive. I needed an organization that could support my radical-rebel self as well as my conventional-credentialed self. On a personal level, Mel consistently encouraged me to follow my own heart and trust my own knowing. This may sound simple, but considering my early conditioning, Mel’s style of support was radically life-changing.

As it happens, Mel championed the cause of minister’s rights in several court cases where AIWP ministers have been legally challenged for one reason or another. In every case, the ministers were found to be operating within the requirements of the law, and therefore, the lawsuits were dismissed.

As long as no criminal laws are trespassed, Mel has repeatedly assured me that my certification as a minister through AIWP provides the best possible form of protection for my counseling and healing work.

Mel’s encouragement and his unwavering commitment to ministerial rights has made me realize that I’m proud to be a minister. This form of certification isn’t stodgy. It’s the most radical and most intelligent form of legal protection available to me as a helping professional. Long live the separation of church and state!

This article was originally published by The New Times (October 2002) and updated in June 2017.

To learn more about AIWP or the University for Integrative Learning, please visit

Update from August 2013: My beloved mentor-friend, Mel Suhd, died gently in his sleep on August 2, 2013. He was 88. Happy trails to you, Mel. Your spirit lives on in all of us whose lives you touched!

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).