Clinical Pastoral Education isn’t just for Chaplains

Back in seminary I had the opportunity to do CPE at a local hospital in New Haven. It was a great facility and a prime opportunity – the slots fill up fast. But I didn’t take it because I planned on doing more traditional church ministry, not chaplaincy. While some of my classmates jumped at the opportunity to get CPE, others, like myself, said “why bother if I’m not going to need it?” Looking back I can see that I missed out on a great opportunity.

So do you need Clinical Pastoral Education if you’re planning on traditional ministry? Is it really only for hospital chaplains or navel gazers? Absolutely not. 

CPE does teach a great deal about providing pastoral care to those who are ill and their families. If you care going into a traditional church ministry, you will need those tools in your toolbox as you come across crises in your parish or church. CPE will give you those tools, but if you are simply looking for techniques go grab a book or two on pastoral care and save your time. That’s because CPE teaches you not only those skills on how to handle crises but will challenge you theologically, spiritually and personally.

Clinical Pastoral Education, at its best, serves to hold up a mirror to yourself: your theology, your history, your strengths and faults, and holds them up for everyone to see. At times I’ve heard that CPE is too deconstructive and conflict-based. I can’t say anything about every situation or supervisor obviously, but when a student in my group left because she felt “attacked”, it was because she didn’t like what she saw in the mirror. The group was hardly antagonistic – we were actually very deferential. Whenever I hear students with CPE “horror stories”, I often wonder what came up that made them run.

It’s this self-reflective part of CPE that is really the most valuable, and will help ministers the most. I’ve known too many ministers who are blind to their faults, or even blind to their strengths. They don’t know how to lead or handle conflict beyond what they’ve read in the most recent leadership book on Amazon. Becoming more aware of these areas will undoubtedly help in the more practical areas of ministry, such as managing staff and care needs, but also come through the pulpit as well.

A minister that knows themselves truly is able to lead through example, not just by dictation. They also are acquainted with the deep needs and hurts that their congregation experiences, and are able to speak to those things personally. If you give me a choice between a minister who is a theological genius, one who is a powerful teacher, and one who is authentic from the pulpit, I’ll take the authentic one every day.

CPE will also give you something else for your ministry – stories. You will collect stories from your patients you see and your group that you will never get otherwise. You’ll also further develop your own personal theology, especially regarding theodicy.

So if you’re a seminarian and have the opportunity for CPE don’t pass it up. If you are a practicing minister and need something to take your ministry to the next level (whatever that level may be – I use that term even though I hate it) I’d recommend it as well. Even one unit will benefit you tremendously, and you may find that you go back for more. It may even lead you down a whole new career path.

Find local CPE centers through ACPE and CPSP.


4 thoughts on “Clinical Pastoral Education isn’t just for Chaplains

  1. I just completed a year of CPE and it was challenging, heartbreaking, tiring, anxiety-provoking, and really meaningful. We were asked to do a creative project at the end of the year and I ended up recording an EP about my experiences. In the end, I discerned that chaplaincy is not for me, but I’m so grateful for the experience. I’d definitely recommend CPE to non-chaplains. (And if you want to hear the album, it’s live on Spotify! 😀

      • I would love it if you did! And thank you so much for continuing to blog and post. I have been following your blog for many years, before I even entered seminary. Coming out from the other side of a year spent in a hospital as a chaplain resident, I have a totally different level of appreciation 🙂 Many thanks!

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