I followed the others into the conference room with a tight knot in my stomach. This was the room at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services where the CPE students and supervisors would meet for twelve hours each week this summer. We would be learning by listening to lectures, sharing ministry experiences, and … confiding our personal stories. Some of the students around me were new to me, while others were friends or familiar faces from CTS. Although I blended in outwardly, I felt different from everyone else in the room. I smiled around the room and focused as much as I could on participating in the group interactions, inwardly promising myself that I would not cry today in front of all of these people.
In CPE, I would not be able to hide the truth of my spiritual journey to agnosticism from my peers. At church, my part in the congregation’s ceremonial singing and speaking about God was prescribed. At seminary, I felt I would be straying off topic if I didn’t answer questions in class from the perspective of my lingering Reformed worldview. From what I had heard, CPE is a deep communal journey. If I wanted to really learn what it had to teach me, I couldn’t hide behind ceremonial or partially truthful statements of my beliefs. I had revealed my spiritual struggles to some trusted confidants at both church and seminary, but now everyone in my CPE program was going to know about my struggles – and my overwhelming grief surrounding them.
Being open about my struggles, at least in the context of CPE, was both a relieving and frightening idea. After around a year and a half of inner questioning, while outwardly being known as a strong Christian preparing for ministry, I was fed up with my duplicity. But I had chosen that duplicity for a reason. Some of my confidants greeted my story with understanding and curiosity, and none were unkind. But for many, my revelation frightened and hurt them. In my own frightened and hurt state, causing others fear and pain was too much for me to bear. When even some of my most trusted confidants responded in this way, how could I broadcast my struggles to mere acquaintances?
Hence both my attraction to and terror of CPE. Would my community of fellow students greet my true self with understanding and curiosity, or would my self-revelation only cause them fear and pain as well? I had already shared my faith journey with my supervisors during my interview. Their welcoming, non-anxious responses during the interview and their choice to accept me into the program were the few threads of hope I was clinging to.
That first day of CPE was a very difficult one for me, and I almost didn’t come back for the second day. But as the summer wore on, I found in my supervisors, mentors, and peers exactly the sort of community I needed. They gave me the space I needed at first to separate myself from them by defining myself as Agnostic, and even as (I finally dared to say it) not Christian. At the same time, they fully accepted me as a minister and as a person. I didn’t have to worry about being seen as less capable of ministering to patients because I was agnostic or treated as if I were in need of rescue because I was not “saved.”
Over the course of the summer, we learned together that we were not actually that different after all. I still had experiences of the divine and convictions about love and forgiveness that other students shared. Other students shared many of my doubts and questions about life and God. We came from diverse theological backgrounds, and all of us were learning to care spiritually for people with whom we often disagreed. The veil between Christian and Agnostic was thinner than I had thought. By the end of the summer, I felt fully embraced and fully a part of this spiritual (and predominantly Christian) community. I no longer felt like the odd one out among my peers.
I was both encouraged and challenged spiritually by my peers and supervisor. One day after a small group meeting, some of my peers sought me out and told me that they would like to hear more about my questions and beliefs about God. It was so encouraging to feel their genuine interest in understanding my perspective for its own sake. They weren’t trying to correct my beliefs or answer my questions, just understand them. This truly showed respect for my personhood, and gave me greater confidence in the value of my own spirituality. When I did share more with the group about my questions and beliefs, my supervisor and peers also asked insightful questions that challenged me. Two of their insights stuck with me. First, they noticed a duality in my presentation between my mind and my heart. My mind had many reasons for why my Christian beliefs no longer made sense, but my heart still longed for God. They encouraged me to fully value my heart, for a fully formed faith integrates both mind and heart. Second, they noticed that many of my questions about God (particularly theodicy questions) pertained to a very Western, patriarchal view of God. They opened my imagination to other possibilities of how God might relate to the world that were not so susceptible to the holes in theodicy. I am still wrestling with both of these insights, and am thankful for how they have allowed me to grow spiritually.
While wrestling with my faith within this spiritual community, I was also working as a chaplain. I was assigned to the Child & Adolescent inpatient unit, which means that I worked with children and teens who needed, on average, a week of hospital care before it was safe for them to return to daily life. On this unit, about a third of the patients were Christian, about a third were Agnostic, and about a third were Atheist. With the support of my community, I found I was learning to minister well to all of these groups. My own spiritual journey through doubt was a great asset in ministering to patients who had doubts and questions of their own. Without having worked through my own anxiety about doubt and faith, I would not have been able to simply be present with those patients, without needing to give answers. At the same time, I was still able to care for and identify with Christian patients. At the beginning of the summer, I had serious questions about whether I could minister to people as an Agnostic, but by the end, I felt great confirmation in continuing to pursue ministry.
I am extremely grateful for my CPE experience this summer at Pine Rest. Feeling fully embraced by a spiritual (and predominantly Christian) community has given me the healing and strength I needed to begin reclaiming my spiritual integrity in many other areas of my life (such as writing this piece to be read by my seminary community). It has also challenged and encouraged me spiritually. Finally, CPE confirmed my call to minister spiritually to others, despite (and even because) of this turbulent portion of my own journey.