Why Pastors Should Take CPE (1 of 2)

I’ve been writing this post in my head for more than a year. That doesn’t mean it’s good as much as it’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while.  I’m taking a series of units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at a Chicago hospital.  I took a unit last year at a different site, Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly. And my thoughts are coming out of those experiences as well as loving theft of smarter people who’ve said things about the same.

Here are some random thoughts about the early reasons to take a unit in CPE. My next post will comment on the content and group work in ways that keep the right confidences:

The requirements are minimal. You do need a theological background, so you have to be friends with graduate theological education. But if you’re in the work of that or if it’s behind or under you, the steps to enrolling in CPE are doable. Getting in tends to be an extremely hospitable process, one where you are lovingly and graciously asked significant questions that will in themselves be an education.

The requirements aren’t minimal. In a sense, just by going through the application process, you know that people around the table, in your peer group, have taken the decision to attend very seriously. It takes recommendations and essays and answers to fairly deep questions to get an interview for a site. But you know that everyone has answered, or been pushed to answer, the same strong questions.  Once you start serving in your site and doing group work, you’ve joined a group of people who are generally good at making and staying with commitments.

CPE is a continuing education. Most people are familiar with CPE as part of a seminary education, but because I was working at a church during seminary, I didn’t take a unit in CPE. I didn’t have the time. The beauty of CPE is that you can take it at any point. And pastors need structured continuing education in theological reflection, in pastoral arts, and in group dynamics. The education provides for those.

Choosing gets easier. You have to choose your site, where you want to “do your unit,” where you want to learn. Part of that choice is in your experience of the interview with the potential group leader/clinical supervisor. This person will become either a very poor influence in your life over the months you’re learning or someone you “esteem among rubies.” In my case, my clinical supervisor was a critical reason I kept going forward to get more units. Her way and expertise with teaching us and me were outstanding. You should pray to have a supervisor like Sister Barbara at Urban CPE.

Praying gets harder. If you’re lucky, you’ll sit in a group with people as different from you as a new morning. That alone might shock you into transformation, growth, and learning. All of you being ministers, all of you won’t come from the same ministerial background. Welcome that for what it’ll do to how you approach God. You should find yourself using a broader range of words for God, expanding beyond your well-crafted experience of God, and, thereby, deepening in the way you’ve created that range and that craft. But praying may take longer. You’ll integrate yourself in prayer, listen to feelings and how they make their own prayers, and you’ll be heard differently as you pray for others in the intimate homes of people unfamiliar with your way of doing ministry. You may become a bit more humble.

We need feedback. As a pastor, I spend time telling people what I think, and I spend time helping people reflect on what they think. I needed an education that would come alongside me post-seminary which would enable me to regularly reflect on my practice of ministry and, as importantly, give me feedback. My experience of the pastoral care part of leadership is that you don’t get feedback normally.  Building a vehicle for it was important. Once you go through a group or two, you expect feedback, learn how to hear people, and learn what it feels like to be heard.

Supervision is a gift. Clinical supervision is a weekly meeting with your supervisor, a pastoral educator who has had–by the time they sit with you–years of post-seminary training in listening, group work, paper writing, grief, chaplaincy, and teaching. She’s been to therapy in order to sit with you. He’s been through what you’ve been through at least half a dozen times. So, when you close the door of your meeting room and talk about what you’re learning as you serve in your clinical area, you’re receiving something precious.

The education is somewhat tailored. You develop your goals for CPE. There are common outcomes because the education is accredited through the ACPE. There are standards to meet, but you determine how and whether you meet them. The grading is first very interior because the focus, from application to post-unit evaluation, is on you and what you need. My interview at Northwestern was an inviting time of discernment last summer. The first question they asked me was, “What do you need from us today?” Blew me away.

Pastors doing process notes change. Ministers do a lot and we could even do more than we think. In other words, we could do what we do and not think. Process notes are an essential part of CPE where you write weekly reflections to 5-6 questions. You write out of your experience at your site, thinking through what you’re doing, interrogating your experience. Over time, you read your notes, see your growth, and you change. You add the language of the noted question to yourself and begin to monitor whether an interaction is illuminating. If your supervisor comments on your notes, it’s increases the amount of wisdom you’re gaining.

We start asking better questions. On my current process notes template, our supervisor has this question, “Where did you meet God this week?” Can you imagine answering that weekly for yourself? Before you lead a meeting or close the study door or leave for your Sabbath or give a benediction or counsel someone, knowing that that question is waiting for you is framing and powerful and internally shaping. When we asked good questions, it turns us into good questioners.

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