In any kind of Clinical Pastoral Education experience, you will probably hear this phrase at least once: “trust the process”. I know I heard it several times in my own CPE classes, and it was never spelled out what it meant to “trust the process”.
That is part of trusting the process.
Many seminarians enter CPE because they have to, because they want to enhance their pastoral care toolbox, or enhance their resume. I’m not going to pan these reasons at all. They are all good reasons to take a CPE unit. However this is only part of what CPE does. The tools and materials used in CPE to help develop interpersonal caregiving skills – books, group work, role-play, writing essays and reports, films – are also designed to work intrapersonally as well. When entering in to the work at first, the focus is outward. We come to learn to help others, to manage others’ crises better, and see how caregiving fits in to our theological and scriptural paradigms.
However, while doing all that, you will soon see that we can’t apply these tools to the pain of others without applying them to ourselves as well. To help others in pain requires wrestling with our own pain. We must struggle and accept our own pain, anger and guilt; all those “bad” feelings that ministers are often not allowed to have. It’s at this point where I’ve seen other CPE students, including myself, become stuck – if only for a time. There’s a point in CPE where everyone in their first unit says to themselves, or even out loud, “I didn’t sign up for this! When did this turn in to counseling? Why are we sitting here watching Simon Birch and discussing our Enneagrams? What a waste of time!”. This is usually when your supervisor reminds you to “trust the process” and unpauses the movie.
What does this mean, though? I came across the following quote from life coach Connie Chapman and it’s a good start:
“To trust the process, wholly, completely, is to not need to know what is unfolding or why, but to simply be here in the present to experience it.”
The process is not just the class or the material. The process is how the experience is impacting and changing you. Seminary – and ministry for that matter – can very easily become an intellectual experience where we are judged and rewarded by the quality of our output. The “process” becomes one of intellectual improvement and honing, measured by the excellence of our research, writing, participation and memorization. But this does not necessarily make us good ministers. Ministry requires care, insight, and introspection as well, and its this process that CPE focuses on.
One of the things you’ll find in CPE is that no matter what books or materials you study your most important teacher, subject and resource will be yourself. I think this is why some seminarians struggle with it at first. To shift from processing everything externally in the forms of exegesis papers and essays on systematic theology to processing my own internal struggles and questions is dramatic.
But to “trust the process” not only means that the group is in some way impacting and changing me, but that God is in some way changing me at this time. Paul spells out trusting the process in this way:
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Phil 1:6
The process here is the salvation of our souls. It is the continual honing not of our knowledge or our output but of our inner self. I think it is so easy for ministers to fall in to the trap of equating our outer work with our inner selves: if our church is full and our sermons are great then we are fine. We forget sometimes that the Holy Spirit still works in us. We are still being refined and measured not by the quality of our work but by the character of our witness. That is the process, and to trust the process I think means that we trust that God is still not finished with us yet, even as shepherds of His sheep. It also means that as much as we are focused on the next thing coming up, ministers need to attend to our own personal experience. That requires attending to what is happening right now, and that is a skill that is harder to hone than many of us realize. It can make us exhilarated, frustrated, angry, joyous, hurt and afraid. That’s all part of the process.