Across the UCC: Clinical pastoral education

Across the UCC: Clinical pastoral education

September 30, 2005
Written by Daniel Hazard

CPE training helps in all types of pastoral situations

Anyone who asks the Rev. Elizabeth Terrill about the importance of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) will get the same reply. "I hate to sound like the Chamber of Commerce for Clinical Pastoral Education," laughs Terrill, pastor of Brownhelm Congregational UCC in Vermilion, Ohio, "but it makes a big difference."

Whether a seminarian is planning on becoming a parish pastor or wants to minister in an institutional setting, Terrill says CPE "gives a window into ourselves as to how we approach other people and how they approach us."

In the mid '90s, Terrill took a summer CPE unit at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa. Later, in 2000, Terrill did a yearlong CPE residency at UCC-related Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind.

Terrill’s experience in CPE was a balance between time on the hospital fl oor doing chaplaincy work, and time in the classroom with a CPE supervisor and a class of peers.

"It’s a wonderful way to explore possibilities and explore different facets of ministry in various settings," she says. "Then you take that back and think about them on your own, and also have a group of people there to help you wheedle it down to the kernels, the nuts and bolts."

Terrill says spending time with patients increases the awareness of what is going on in a hospital room. "The person most in need of pastoral care is not always the most obvious person," says Terrill, who notes that often a loved one, not the actual patient, sometimes needs extra care and attention.

"When I started with CPE, I understood that this would surely help with any ministry I was in. Especially with hospital calls, visiting people in their homes, approaching the sick and hurting," says Terrill. "What I didn’t realize was how much of the CPE experience helped in all parts of parish ministry."

Terrill says the tools she learned in CPE help her with everyday relationship between her and her parishioners.

Surprisingly, Terrill says she draws from her CPE experience during meetings to this day.

"My CPE supervisor specialized in group dynamics and family systems," she says. "Most of the time, people are not being argumentative just to be argumentative, they’re just being who they’re made to be. But it’s different for the person on the other side of the able. When we can see through some of that and understand that about each other, we can really open communication that wouldn’t be possible before."

"CPE is hard work, very often heartbreaking, but very occasionally joyful as well. It’s such a blend of emotions and experiences," says Terrill. "It’s basically learning about human nature both from the inside and the outside."

CPE: Practical preparation for crisis ministry

"Over the years, I’ve discovered a lot of parishioners just have a blank look on their face when I mention what I do," says the Rev. Richard Gerber of St. Paul, Minn., a retired Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor.

For 30 years, Gerber, an ordained UCC minister, worked as a hospital chaplain, a CPE supervisor and a manager of CPE programs in mostly healthcare settings. "[Most people] don’t have a sense that CPE is a very vital partner with traditional theological education in terms of preparing people for ministry."

Gerber is doing his best to get the word out about CPE, something he says is not just for those wishing to go into chaplaincy. And it appears many denominations agree with him: most theological learning institutions require CPE as part of student training, no matter what kind of ministry they’re pursuing.

A student taking a CPE course applies to one of the 350 CPE centers in the U.S., accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), the national umbrella organization headquartered in Decatur, Ga.

CPE centers are located all over the U.S., says Gerber, "any place where people are struggling with difficult human situations."

While some are in prisons or social agencies, Gerber says most CPE centers are in healthcare settings.

The Rev. Teresa Snorten, executive director of ACPE, says, "CPE is a good opportunity to learn the nature of crisis ministry."

Snorten says spending time with people who are in crisis can benefi t anyone pursuing a career in ministry.

The other component of CPE, classroom time, places the student with a trained and certified CPE advisor, in a classroom of peers from a variety of faith traditions.

"Nowadays, most people have more than one religious experience, so even within the context of CPE you have people who bring all kinds of diverse interpretations and their own spirituality," Snorton says. "Being exposed to that kind of diversity gives them the opportunity to learn how to navigate the tensions that can arise."

CPE began back in 1925 as a new method of theological education that took place in not only the academic setting, but the clinical setting as well. The Rev. Anton Boisen (1876-1965), a Presbyterian-turned-Congregational minister, was one of the founders of CPE.

"Boisen developed this notion of studying living human documents, as well as written documents," explains Gerber. "In CPE, you are actually experiencing folks in struggling human situation, trying to make sense out of what it’s all about for them, how their sense of God and spiritual life connects with all of that," he says. "Through the process of listening and counseling, you’re learning a lot about the way the spirit works and how theology gets shaped and formed."

CPE opens students to different faiths, unique situations

Toni Kracke, a native of Evansville, Ind., is just returning for her second year at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.

This summer, she’s completed her required unit of CPE — 10 full-time work weeks at Evansville’s Deaconess Hospital, another UCC-related institution.

A typical day for Kracke was half spent in one of three units at the hospital she had been assigned: a surgical unit, a general unit and a same-day care unit. The other half of her day was spent with her CPE class.

Kracke enjoyed the diversity of her class, with students representing ages spanning from 23 to 60. There were several Roman Catholic students, a Baptist, and some UCC.

"Having the perspective of different faith traditions was really fun for us when we had reflection time," she says.

Kracke said the ensuing discussions were enlightening. For example, she says, "Prayer is prayer, but you don’t have to pray in the name of Jesus Christ if you’re praying with a Muslim person. And you don’t pray in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost if you’re praying with a Baptist. How do you figure these things out?

That’s part of what CPE did."

Kracke learned a lot about herself during her 10 weeks at Deaconess. One patient faced double amputation and was refusing the procedure. She was blind, and also had a stroke. Kracke ministered to the patient for the five weeks of her stay.

"Because she was younger than me, I never anticipated the kinds of problems she was having. It struck me so hard," she says.

Some day, Kracke hopes to be the pastor of a small church in a mid-sized or rural community. And she knows she will carry her CPE experience with her wherever she goes.

"[CPE] taught us to look at any situation from the point of view of being a part of the community of faith," she says. "How do we defend God’s will in a particular time of crisis?"

How to help

Besides supporting your favorite seminary, another way of supporting theological education is to support Clinical Pastoral Education:

Contact the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, 1549 Clairmont Road, Suite 103, Decatur, Ga 30033-4611; (404) 320-1472.

Locate specific CPE centers in your area and help by financially supporting its budget. A directory of CPE centers can be found on the ACPE website.

Establish a scholarship for CPE students to help offset the cost of tuition.


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