Reflections on Taking a Unit of Clinical Pastoral Education

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From May 29 through August 10, 2018, I had the privilege of taking a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. At the conclusion of our time together, each of us students wrote a "final evaluation". Here are some excerpts from mine.

When I finished my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in 1986, I had not intended to take another unit. As I worked with chaplains during my stint as interim director of Chaplaincy and Care ministry for the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 2009 and 2010, my interest in taking another unit was piqued. A particular conversation made a deep impact on me; the chaplain said that he took a unit of CPE when he was in his 50’s, and that it had changed his life. In addition, my pastor has been taking units of CPE for the past several years. As he talked about his experiences, I felt an even greater yearning to do it myself. When an opportunity arose for me to take a leave from my regular work with CRC Disability Concerns ministry, I applied for leave with the intent of doing a unit of CPE and was delighted when I was approved for the study leave and for CPE. It may be years before I can say that it changed my life, but as my unit of CPE winds to a close, I have deep gratitude for the opportunity, for the experiences I’ve had, and for the personal and professional growth I have experienced these past 11 weeks.

I’m grateful for CPE’s clinical method of learning that allows for action and guided reflection. Interacting with patients/residents formally in one on ones and leading groups as well as informally by “hanging out” have brought me into intimate spaces of people’s lives in which  interactions can happen on deep emotional and spiritual levels. In addition, being present with and for staff has provided me with similar opportunities to invite them to reflect on their work, to think about what gives them hope, and to affirm and encourage them in their work. The multiple opportunities to contemplate on these experiences have allowed me to grow personally and professionally as a chaplain to both patients and staff. CPE provides multiple venues for emotionally and spiritually safe reflection on clinical experiences including conversations with my CPE Certified Educator and Certified Educator trainee and with my mentor chaplain as well as through meetings with peers in a structured covenant group, writing verbatims of one on one conversations with patients and reflecting on those in the covenant group, writing weekly reflections, and also writing midterm and final evaluations.

The most meaningful contributions of the CPE program to my pastoral growth and development were:

  • Engaging in the incredible power of listening in such a way that someone knows that he/she has been heard. I have sat or walked with people while they talked and talked and felt as if I were not doing a thing, but I have learned that my reflectively listening helped them process and sort through issues they were struggling with to help them come to deeper insights about themselves, their purpose, their relationship with God, and their relationships with other people.
  • Deepening my ability to identify my own emotions and learning how those inform my interactions with other people.
  • Discovering appreciation for emotions that I have wanted to run from throughout my life. In particular, I’ve dealt with anxiety throughout my life and perpetually tried to eliminate it, but now I consider it one of many emotions that comprise my everyday life and have begun to appreciate the many ways anxiety has helped me in life.
  • Appreciating past experiences that I used to consider only negatively.
  • Embracing hope as a way to live and learning practices that will help me live hopefully.

My experiences in CPE also helped me hone my theology. I’ll conclude with my thoughts on the central themes of my religious heritage and theological understanding which shape my ministry:

  • Image of God – all people are made in God’s image; therefore, God chooses all people as his friends, giving all people infinite worth.
  • Hope – God has invested each person and all creation with purpose.
  • Community – God is a divine community in three persons. We humans are made to be in community as well, and we need each other.
  • Sin – Life is difficult and full of misery, and people will make poor choices that hurt others and themselves.
  • Grace – God’s compassion looks upon all people with the same love that a healthy mother has for her young child. (See Psalm 131)
  • Incarnation – God made us and all creation with matter, and God entered the material world through Jesus Christ.
  • God’s providence – God cares for people and all creation intimately.
  • God’s immanence – God is present throughout the world and with all people. God rejoices and weeps with us, his friends.
  • God’s transcendence – God is not limited by the material, temporal world.

One of my mentors this summer, Rev. Lisa Taylor, is in training to be a CPE Certified Educator. Her thoughts about CPE are a good way to conclude:

The one thing that I have been reflecting on is “pace.” Even though the Summer CPE Unit is only 11 weeks, it is not a sprint. It requires pace, a different kind of pace. Students move and progress through the program, but CPE requires more than counting down the days until completion. CPE is academic in nature and head knowledge is important, but CPE is heart related. This means that it requires a person to do the “soul work” to look at the issues of his/her heart. I believe that there are soul questions that are addressed and possibly answered during the CPE process. I define soul questions as the questions that evolve, because the way we think, live, move, and have our being do not serve us any longer. They do not help us to evolve into our greater self. Soul questions are the questions that question and/or confirm our beliefs, values, and commitments. As we journey with patients, and for me with students, we are introduced to our own soul questions. When these soul questions are identified, asked, answered, and/or resolved, we are more self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and healed because according to Psalm 23:3, “He restores my soul.” God wants to restore our souls, but sometimes we are not attuned to the work of the soul. CPE is a place where soul work can began and continue in a nonjudgmental sacred space.

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Nice work Mark. Thanks for this thoughtfulness. Almost makes me think that you should be teaming up with Sarah Roelefs and doing some chaplaincy consulting...