James Obert Kempson

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by Thomas A. Summers
Columbia, SC – May 2003

Obert Kempson, affectionately known as “Kemp” by many colleagues, was born in 1909 in Little Mountain, South Carolina. In remarking about the magnitude of his productive career, a banquet speaker once said, “That’s (Little Mountain) the only association that this giant ever had with anything ‘little.’”

Obert gained respectively BA, BD, and MA degrees from Newberry College, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, and University of South Carolina (psychology). Further graduate study was done at Columbia University in New York and Boston University. Late in his career, he participated in educational study for two summers at the University of Michigan’s School of Gerontology.

As a young Lutheran pastor, he began his clinical pastoral vocation in the early 1930’s as chief chaplain at the South Carolina State Hospital. Under the auspices of the Council for Clinical Training, he developed in that setting in 1946 the first approved program of clinical pastoral education in the Southeast Region. He participated in CPE programs at New Jersey State Hospital, the Federal Detention Center in New York, and St. Elizabeths Hospital (where he did his supervisory training with Ernest Bruder).

Within a forty-seven year period of employment with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, Obert had three significant eras of distinctive pastoral focus. First, a thirty-year stint as chief chaplain at the SC State Hospital was followed by a dozen years as Pastoral Consultant with the division of Community Mental Health Services. Within the community context, he was instrumental in developing full-time pastoral coordinators in many of the state’s community mental health centers. A final five-year period was spent in directing the state agency’s Primary Prevention project. Following his closure in 1982 from his longtime career in mental health ministry, the innovative clergyman entered a twelve-year phase of gerontology employment with the Lutheran Homes of South Carolina in staff development work.

Throughout his notable career, Obert was an innovator and helped to inaugurate new undertakings. For instance, he has been recognized as the principal founder of the Association of Mental Hospital Chaplains in 1947. He initiated the departmental program of pastoral care and counseling at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 1952 and taught there until 1975. In 1955, he served as the editor for the “Fellowship Hymnal,” a groundbreaking hymnal utilized in specialized clinical ministries. Furthermore, he was the first Regional Director of ACPE’s Southeast Region in 1968. He was selected as the first Chairperson of ACPE’s newly developed Judiciary Commission in the early 1980’s.

His broader religious and ecumenical interests were many. As an example, he was a committee member in the National Council of Churches from 1958-1966 with its Department of Pastoral Services. In the earlier Lutheran Church in America, he was a member of the Consultation Committee on Lay Ministries. In addition, Obert was a member of the Executive Committee for the Society for the Advancement of Continuing Education for Ministry. The South Carolina Welfare Forum once knew him as its president.

His exceptional professional contributions brought numerous awards his way. Both the SC Mental Health Association and the SC Christian Action Council honored him with their Distinguished Service Awards. In the 1960s, the Association of Mental Health Clergy presented him with the Anton T. Boisen Award. The Southeast Region, ACPE established in 1981 a distinguished service award in Obert's name.

In 1984, ACPE awarded him with it Distinguished Service Award. The SC Commission on Aging named him in 1991 as the Outstanding Older South Carolinian of the Year. In 1995, he was awarded “Christus in Mundo,” the highest honor from the Lutheran Coordinating Committee for Specialized Pastoral Care and Education. His college alma mater, Newberry College once gave him an honorary doctoral degree. “Professor Emeritus” was a title that the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary bestowed upon him.

In organizational work, Obert was known for his astute wisdom, friendliness, and fidelity to helping bring out the positive dimensions in organizations. Behind a smile and his gleaming snow-white hair rested an energetic persistence. Dr. William S. Hall, a longtime friend and state commissioner of mental health in South Carolina, once remarked at a banquet, “Obert’s got the tenacity of an English bulldog!”

One of his most enjoyable hobbies was that of traveling. His curiosity about cultures and geography took him to such places as China, Israel, Greece, Egypt, New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries, and Europe. In knowing him for nearly forty years, I was privileged to travel with him to many places in the United States to attend national conferences. One of the first things he often wanted to do in arriving in a city was to catch a Gray Line bus and take a tour of the city.

Following a respiratory illness, Obert died on July 21, 1997 at the infirmary of The Lutheran Home in White Rock, SC. A funeral service was conducted at the Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC; and he was buried in its graveyard. He was survived by his charming wife Rachel Muller Kempson (who was a longtime public school teacher), three children, and seven grandchildren.

This outstanding person has been rightfully hailed by many as one of the legendary persons in the entire history of the clinical pastoral education field.