On one of my networks for professional networking and support, the subject of Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, has been getting kicked about. Most chaplains have some. Some chaplains have more than is good for a soul (and that’s my category). Many clergy who are not chaplains have some, whether required for seminary graduation or for ordination, or pursued for personal growth.
CPE tends to be a hot topic among clergy. First and foremost, it’s an uncomfortable experience under the best of circumstances. For most of us, it includes sleepless nights and theological challenges. It also includes, always, exploration of personal issues in the context of group and personal supervision. For many, it’s that exposure of feelings and fears to others, even to the limited others of a small learning group, that is hardest. We feel challenged not only for what we do and how we do it, but for who we are and how we show it. It’s emotional in a way that few other learning processes ever is.
Perhaps we need to think first about what CPE is about. It began as the opportunity for seminary students to get experience in pastoral practice in a setting that also integrated what were at the time new learning in psychology and social work (two streams that started in two different places, really, but became complementary). The goal was to improve the capacity of parish clergy to do sensitive pastoral work in a time when seminary training was pretty much as academic as any other professional training. Early on, with the integration of information from behavioral sciences, a valuable theme came to the fore: “the first tool God gave me for my ministry, and the more I can learn about myself, and especially about myself when functioning in pastoral care, the better I can use that tool, and so be the better pastor.” (The point is to be better than I would be otherwise, not automatically better than someone else.)
Now, seminaries provide more clinical or contextual or experiential learning than they used to (choose your title); but few provide it with the concentration of CPE They can still be awfully academic, even in teaching pastoral care; and so for many of us seminaries required or recommended CPE, again, so that we might be better pastors.
There are two things to be said about this. First, there are those who don't need CPE to learn these things about themselves. There are a variety of settings in which we can learn these things, or at least some of them. Therapy can help, although few therapeutic relationships explore specifically the pastoral work of the client. Spiritual Direction can help, but isn’t set up per se to help us reflect on how we relate as professionals. The “School of Hard Knocks” can do it, too; but it you think about it, you might agree with me that few really learn about themselves in that unstructured program. CPE, reflecting theological education that is sensitive to behavioral sciences and to spiritual growth, combined with its own hard knocks, provides a structured learning program that helps most of us learn about ourselves.
Second, there are those who don't learn these things even in CPE. One can be sufficiently determined not to engage in the process, intellectually, emotionally, or practically, that one goes through virtually unchanged, and only angrier for the experience. Pastors who haven’t learned from their own pain, whether in CPE or otherwise, are, in my opinion, useless.
Those who can learn about themselves without CPE make fine pastors and chaplains, but don't always get the chance. Those who don’t learn, whether from CPE or one of the alternatives, get the chance, and can turn out to be poor pastors and chaplains. I meet those folks when they’re patients, and have to deal with the anger they’ve engendered, and sometimes the spiritual harm they’ve done. It’s why my response to the parish pastor who said, “Take that issue to God; I’m only in Sales,” is, “I’m in Maintenance.”
Now, the professional certifying bodies for chaplains have settled on CPE as a credential for certification, because in the broad spectrum of clergy there are many who don't learn about themselves as pastors at all. Those who have four units of CPE are more likely to have learned something, and are more likely to have learned how to learn in the process of their practice. At the same time, it's not the only credential, and is no guarantee of being certified.
Being a good pastor also has something to do with gifts and vocation. I’ve written about the work of volunteers in chaplaincy, and I remain convinced that there are many who provide good care using the personalities and personal strengths that God gave them. CPE can sharpen gifts for those who have them. It can’t provide much to those who don’t.
Considering how wide are the requirements for professional religious practice in these United States (from only sufficient spiritual call to what is virtually the equivalent of an earned doctorate), having a tool for many to learn to be better pastors seems worthwhile. I have long thought of it as raising the mean of pastoral care across the spectrum of religious practice by raising the bottom. It isn't always a good experience, and not everyone needs it. Still, for many of us, it has helped us be more sensitive, respectful, supportive pastors than we might otherwise have been, learning more quickly than we might otherwise have learned.