Last year I had no idea what CPE was; all I knew was that seminary people liked to throw around that three letter acronym. It wasn’t until I became very interested in pastoral care through Rev. Ron Nydam’s class that I began to look at what my options were for learning more about that area of ministry. I discovered that the chaplaincy career track capitalized on pastoral care skills. From there, I began to research what it meant to be a chaplain. I learned that a chaplain is an ordained minister who serves in a secular space instead of a church, such as a hospital, prison, the military, or a business. Everything I learned about Chaplaincy excited me; it felt like a breath of fresh air to find this career track. I searched out what the steps were to become a Chaplain and learned that most chaplains are certified through ACPE. They are required to have an MDIV in their denomination, then are required to take four units of CPE, or one unit and a residency. After their CPE is completed they are required to work 2000 hours as a Chaplain to become an official certified Chaplain. This means around two years of work after the MDIV. My heart sank when I learned all of the requirements for Chaplaincy. I was previously so excited to be entering my 20th and hopefully last year in the American education system. The pain of the additional hoops to jump through lessened when I actually experienced my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE.
I applied for the Pine Rest CPE program, and quickly learned that Clinical Pastoral Education means doing pastoral care work in a clinical setting, then processing those patient meetings with a tight knit group called a covenant group. I was placed at Spectrum Butterworth and Blodgett. Each day I would go into the hospital and visit 5-15 patients, then chart those visits in the same way a doctor or nurse chart their visits. There were a number of these visits that I was required to write verbatim on. This meant that I had to do my best to record my patient conversations word for word, then analyze them. I would then take the verbatim back to my covenant group at pine rest and they would analyze my use of empathy with patients. Often when a covenant group talks about a verbatim, the Chaplain’s own anxieties are made clear through their interaction with the patient. Part of participating in CPE is to identify one’s own issues and anxieties so that they do not negatively affect a listening relationship with a patient. This is what is known as the clinical method of learning: it is learning through clinical practice, group work, and self reflection. Part of what makes CPE so great is that it can become a brutally honest, but freeing time for seminary students.
Throughout my time at Blodgett and Butterworth I met with a constant flow of interesting people. Having this new addition to my rhythm taught me something invaluable, and that is this: Everyone is spiritual, and everyone, no matter who they are, needs spiritual care. It’s easy to look at the devout Christian who just had both of her legs removed and was being kicked out of her apartment and see that she needs spiritual care. But having the opportunity to meet with those who would not get pastoral care in a church setting not only changed my view of spiritual care, but changed my world view. I had the opportunity to pray with a man who had just woken up after being shot in the face in a gang fight the night before, the opportunity to listen to the Atheist who had become confused as to their purpose in life, the opportunity to advocate for the man who had just been released from 40 years in prison for violent crimes, the opportunity to pray for the Muslim woman who just had a stroke, and the opportunity to pray for a woman who had given up on her faith and went into cardiac arrest for 20 minutes. These holy meetings taught me that absolutely everyone has wondered about whether there is a God or not, even if they are in prison for heinous crimes, are currently an atheist, or have diabolically opposed God for most of their life. That little spot in their brain that has wondered about God often comes out again in a stressful situation like a hospital stay, and that little spot needs and deserves spiritual care. We are all in the same human predicament, and we all have a right to share our emotions and be listened to and prayed with. Chaplaincy is the area of ministry that allows that to happen.
Clinical Pastoral Education helped me to shed anxieties in my own life so that I could find a new center to work out of. This mixed with the clinical work and what I learned in the didactic seminars about empathy, family systems theory, and counseling have allowed me and the other participants to grow immensely in pastoral care skills. I highly recommend the program to any student considering any form of ministry. a