Is CPE broken? Reconsidering the “CPE horror story”


anyone having flashbacks to their CPE supervisor’s office?

If you Google “CPE” chances are pretty good that it will start autofilling “horror stories” in the search box. It seems like there are much more stories about bad experiences in CPE than good. Perhaps this is just bias toward the negative, but it certainly does seem to be that CPE is not a good experience for many.

If you follow that search you’ll see why. I read stories about supervisors that destroyed boundaries and exercises designed to tear people down in front of their peers. One person even wrote that “Clinical Pastoral Education is nothing more than a systematic ‘weeding out’ of orthodox seminarians through a process of enforced radical leftist indoctrination.” It’s criticized as being unnecessary, unhelpful, “navel-gazing”, pseudo-psychoanalysis. So why is it still required for those entering ministry? Is there something wrong with the program? Are supervisors adequately trained and supervised themselves? Or are seminarians missing the point of CPE entirely?

I had four units of CPE under two different supervisors and while it was certainly hard and unpleasant at times, I would never call it horrible. Quite the opposite in fact – it was one of the more formative experiences I’ve had in many years. However I know not everyone in my group felt the same. Some questioned the purpose of certain exercises or what our supervisor wanted from us. One even left about three weeks in to the unit.

This got me thinking as to why people have such varied experiences even within the same unit of CPE. Of course one reason is individual differences: everyone’s experience will be a bit different even of the best class or teacher. That you can’t fix or really teach to. Trying to please everyone will please no one. There are some things that stood out from my own experience and those I’ve read from others that seem common factors in CPE horror stories that can be avoided.

I think one thing that really stands out to me as a source of bad experiences in CPE is unclear expectations about what the class does and why it does it. Students can come in to CPE expecting to learn about doing pastoral care with the sick, but are blindsided when the focus is placed less on what they are doing and more on their own issues, attitudes and assumptions.  Supervisors can be more up front regarding this with students even before the unit starts, so students can be more prepared for the internal work that’s involved.

Another common problem seems to be supervisors that seek to tear down students simply to tear them down. While the explicit goal of CPE is clinical training, the implicit goal is to develop spiritually and to move beyond what Thomas Merton calls the “false self” to the true self. This only happens through challenge, struggle and suffering. But this suffering needs to happen in a safe place, with guidance and support not only from the supervisors but also the other students. When the CPE classroom is only a place of tearing down, it’s no wonder that so many leave in pain and tell others to avoid it. This tearing down effect can be passed on to the students as well. CPE is a place to “be real instead of nice”. This can be taken too far though, where individuals can become bullies or hurtful in the name of “being real”. Perhaps, just like a patient preparing for surgery, students need to be told that the process will be painful but that they will be supported through it and come out the better for it. I also wonder how supervisors themselves are trained and supervised, and if this issue is actually part of supervisor training or the result of something else.

The last problem I want to discuss is, frankly, the CPE students themselves. When I was in seminary so many students wanted to avoid CPE because of the “horror stories”. But most of those stories were focused on the tough internal processes involved in being a minister and pastor, and it was clear that some wanted no part of it. They were trained exegetes, skilled in biblical interpretation, could read the original languages and weave sermons that moved people to tears.  When the academic markers of success are stripped away though, they flounder.

The truth is that most of seminary and pastoral formation is performance based. Pass the test, write the paper, preach the sermon and be graded accordingly. Approaching CPE strictly as a performance though will quickly lead to frustration and ruin. Perhaps the “horror” that some students find in CPE comes from the inability to please, and therefore be seen as pleasing and good, through performance. Worse yet, they might actually not be good at something! When this happens they react against the process defensively as a way to massage a bruised ego. “The supervisor was a jerk. The class was stupid. It’s not worthy of my time.” Trust me, there are plenty of seminarians who could defend the cosmological argument for the existence of God off the top of their head along with counterarguments and venn diagrams but don’t know how to talk to a grieving widow.

This is not just a problem with seminarians and ministers. We are all trapped in performance-based living, hoping to be affirmed for our being but terrified of this at the same time. Richard Rohr described the difference between the “first half of life”, which is performance based, and the “second half” which is being-based. The transition between the two is never easy, and often involves a stumbling block or skandalon.

“Most of us first experience God as love, security, and the foundational rock that holds everything. But often that very rock seems to get in your way and you stumble over what once sustained you. This is the paradox of the full God encounter. God is the rock that will bring you down. God is a trap that will also snare you, Isaiah goes on to say (8:14). This is not what you expected. This is not what you wanted. But, of course it’s not a snare to destroy you; it’s a snare to save you. It’s not a rock to bring you down into evil; but a rock to bring you down into a larger freedom from your small self–which is not yet big enough to hold even a bit of infinity. …Until you can trust the downward process, the Great Mystery cannot fully overtake you. “

CPE is part of that downward process. It is deconstructive to be sure, but it can also be very constructive to pastors in training. A CPE graduate wrote that “it gives one the unique opportunity to see oneself through the eyes of other people and to be called on one’s BS.” This is a double edged sword of course. Nobody likes to have their bullshit labeled as such – especially ministers.

So is CPE broken? Really it’s hard to tell. I don’t know enough about the supervisor training process to say much about it (though I am looking in to it personally), but it certainly seems like there are some out there who are at best questionable in their educational practices. Perhaps more needs to be acknowledged about the need for and nature of CPE beyond just “minister training”. Or perhaps CPE is broken because so many broken people enter in to it and, after that brokenness is revealed, leave exactly as they came in.

 

 

Advertisements

28 thoughts on “Is CPE broken? Reconsidering the “CPE horror story”

  1. Sam,
    Thanks for this article. Another wonderful post. Your words as usual are moving and poignant. As a CPE SIT I have both heard and experienced the horror stories. I tend to think that CPE Supervision is not broken but the people who provide it are. Please continue to consider supervisory training- I believe you would be an asset to the guild.

    Pax,
    Scott

  2. oh I loved this post (perhaps because I’m a radical feminist and tend to lean left, seriously! : ) ) I had a great CPE experience and I’m about to enter into my 2nd Unit, I’m really looking forward to it . I also recall something Richard Rohr said about the time that he visited an alcoholic anonymous meeting and really felt that what went on there should be what goes on in church-open confessions, crying, people just holding each other with no judgment. I’d like to think that is what CPE can do when people really let go of the defenses and realize its not you doing Ministry, its Ministry doing you, if you allow it to, if you dare to allow it is an adventure and one is profoundly moved by what happens and what can happen when you are being shaped and formed that way. Blessings,

    • Thanks for your feedback! I like the way you put it, how ministry “does you” as much as you “do ministry”.

  3. As a person who had a twenty three year career as a nurse counsellor and as a priest of ten years who has been described as academically and pastorally competent, I need to reply to the writer’s defence of CPE.
    To get into the course as a theological student, I had to lie to be accepted because my denomination requires the course for ordination and I was called to ordained ministry.
    To be accepted I had to present as a person who knew nothing about counselling and pastoral care. And I had to present as a person who wanted to take the course. To achieve an education we all know that we have to take courses we are not interested in and I am and was willing to do that in this case. But l was not happy about having to lie.
    In actual fact, although I was experienced and comfortable working in a health care setting, I was fine with the idea of taking a course that I believe should be designed to help people learn a level of comfort in working in that type of setting. That, I believe should be part of the training for ordained ministry.
    What I have difficulty with is how, not only non-professional CPE is, but how unethical it is (or at least was a dozen years ago). I pray it has changed.
    Speaking as a professional nurse counsellor with twenty three years of experience, I can truly say that it is unethical in an educational setting to mark a student on their compliance with the instructors need to do psycho analysis on that student. That, in my estimation, is a form of abuse. No one in such a position of power should require that their student “open up” to person about personal issues in order to obtain a pass. Students are not patients. They are placed in an academic institution to learn. Yes, academia is “pass the test, write the paper, preach the sermon and be graded accordingly.” A person can learn good pastoral communication without revealing personal experiences and having someone tell them they are wrong.
    I have disturbing memories of my instructor smiling as he recounted a story about a student who had been reluctant to open up to him and how pleased he was the day she cried. There is nothing ethical about that. I recall how angry he was the day I revealed that I took the course because it was required for ordination. I recall how the instructor told me to “forget” (impossible) everything thing I had ever learned about counselling in the past and do it his way. (I also watched his poor counselling technique.) I watched one of my fellow students go from being a bright, engaging, personable person, to being completely depressed when she trusted her deepest feelings to the instructor. She was never the same again.
    Students who desire counselling (and we all do from time to time) should be counselled by a professional they choose and never anyone who has power over them by passing them or failing them. That is simply wrong on too many fronts.
    Again, I support instructors who support students who need counselling. I support the idea of teaching in an academic way good counselling communication skills. And I support the idea of teaching students who are in the ordination stream to work in a health care setting.
    This reply is not because I am angry or defensive but because I care about producing competent clergy. If a student asks for help or needs it, a professional instructor or teacher will refer them to a real counsellor.

    • Thanks very much for your candor. Your story and experience falls in with those of others I’ve read unfortunately. I did say that there do seem to be many supervisors who take the course more as a means for breaking down others which I do not feel is correct or helpful, but I don’t think it is enough to condemn the entire program. I think the program certainly has its merits and positives, and I don’t think it needs to be scrapped. But it does merit looking at whether or not its goals are being achieved and if the means are appropriate to those goals, given stories such as yours. Seeing that most CPE is provided by ACPE approved supervisors I’m curious to see if the experiences of those in groups provided by CPSP are any different. It also doesn’t seem like ACPE has any motivation to change their methodology.

      • I am a CPSP supervisor and Board certified chaplain with APC and CPSP. My experience in training is that I preferred CPSP. CPSP was started twofold as our motto says “recovery of the soul” recovery of CPE movement modeled my Anton Boisen and of course the soul
        of the human being.

        The CPE that I provide is to help trainees experience this process. They cannot ask the members/clients/patients if they haven’t done it themselves.

        CPE is less academic,which ACPE has shifted to and more experiencial

  4. i am not sure CPE is broken so much as people are broken and come from broken family systems (put all that brokenness in a room together and it’ll be noticed)(and CPE isn’t really designed to heal that brokenness)…. CPE is a process (as we like to say) and that process is going to be different for each person and each person will respond differently – no one comes out of the process the same way – and for some that process will be ongoing for life for others they move on from it all…. (I too have thought about supervision but i would need another year of CPE before I could even be considered…)

    • I think your recognition that CPE isn’t designed to heal our brokenness is important. CPE can indeed reveal that brokenness to us in ways we don’t expect or like, but perhaps the bigger issue is exactly what you say. Exposing pain without providing some relief or healing treads on thin ethical and moral grounds, especially for someone who is in their first unit.

      • True. This is probably where wisdom and experience would come in – one of the things CPE does encourage students to identify and pursue all available options to help in one’s growth and development – I was encouraged to go see an EAP counselor to get support for things that we’re really appropriate for the CPE setting – but I was an employee and got (up to) 6 free visits a year but not all are going to be able to do that – so yeah, it’s a potential problem because too I think, it may or may not be helpful that everyone in the group will not have the same spiritual outlook or resources that will lead to healing. IMO.

  5. Sorry for the anonymous post, but I hope to be fair.

    I am all in favor of learning the process of moving from the false self to the true self. (I’m a big fan of Richard Rohr.) I completely agree that CPE instructors should be open about this with students from the beginning.

    The problem that I have with the system is that once a person is fully qualified as a supervisor, there really isn’t anyone to go to if you have a grievance. Yes, the supervisory board is there, but they are usually on the side of the supervisor.

    I had two different supervisors and one was very helpful and one was not. The person who was not helpful engaged in a series of micro-aggressions and put-downs of the sort that are difficult to prove in an institutional environment. While this isn’t a big deal in most work circumstances, it can be if your goal is to be a chaplain and if there aren’t a lot of CPE Residencies near where you live and if dropping out is not an option. You just have to endure the process and suck it up, as on any job. However, it’s more dangerous when someone is toying with your psyche.

    Personally, I also do not approve of the “Fritz Perls tear-em-down-to-build-em-up” approach. (The method I’m pretty certain my “bad” supervisor used.) We now know that Perls sexually exploited his female students and I’m not surprised. This is abusive behavior, pure and simple. And no supervisor should be allowed to use it. Yes, moving from the false self to the true self is going to be uncomfortable. But deliberately trying to tear people apart in a situation where they are essentially required to be emotionally vulnerable is just sadistic.

  6. I have been left wondering how the people called to a healing ministry, one which directs others towards God could with good conscious use emotional abuse as a means towards directing others. It needs to be said, the negative stories are … abuse…. the supervisors should be discredited… not able to practice. Period. I really do not believe that God is OK with it. I was reluctant to enter into a CPE unit because of horror stories. I did because I trusted my supervisor. although not perfect, I know has a tender heart for clients and students.

    • I’ve seen it happen where one gets sort of “closed off” from the input of others. Especially leaders. it’s very easy for a leader to start off and those around him or her think that little other direction or supervision is needed because “they’re a leader”. but if course corrections aren’t made here and there along the way by others the leader/supervisor can end up being so far off base than where they think they are, yet not know it. I’ve seen this with business managers, senior pastors etc. There needs to be an understanding that supervisros also need supervising and correction as well. They haven’t “made it”. When you have supervisors that think that they have, and agreement among peers that they have, it’s a recipe for disaster.

      • Thank you for opening the conversation, I am learning not to be silent, and to be a voice in support of the good things of God. Open dialogue invites all to grow towards God for the sake of others. Grace and Peace to all of us.

  7. Three years ago I completed 4 units of CPE at Loma Linda University Medical Center & Children’s Hospital – 2 units of level 1, and 2 units of Level 2. Prior to attending, I had read no “Horror Stories” about CPE. I had been aware that it would be challenging; it took me 2 years to enter the program, and 2 years to get through it. My CPE supervisor chose a group of people that he felt would “fit in” including diversity of Christian spirituality related to denominational backgrounds, and cultural differences. In the first CPE unit, I found that the biggest challenge was learning how to assess and assimilate the program through the CPE supervisor in his responses to the interaction between me and other students. I was ready to quit the program due to a confrontation from another narcissistic student until I was assured of my supervisor’s support. In fact I thanked God for each CPE unit I completed as I continued to confront the many challenged and complete all 4 units. My biggest problems were not with the CPE program demands or the supervisor because I knew that whatever happened would be something I would deal with no matter what. For me it was similar to working through the Navy Seal Team program with emotional stressors but with obviously less physical demands. One has to condition the mind to just keep moving forward at all times, and deal with whatever. The CPE program challenges students to confront their own internal issues and discuss them in front of others, and it also creates situations where students challenge one-another. It’s all part of the growth process if one sees the big picture.

    In the final analysis, the greatest challenges I had were dealing with the emotional traumas of people in the hospital ER, ICU, the injured, those dying at all ages, having life-saving procedures done, cancer patients, abused babies, etc. Sometimes ministering to families was more difficult than the patients. CPE is/was like a battle ground where in the classroom and with the patient visitation, it can take a toll on anybody. When I finished CPE, I knew that chaplaincy was my role in ministry. CPE is a tremendous growth opportunity and overall a very positive experience if your attitude is right.

    • Thank you for your honest perspective with your experience in CPE as well. I too find the challenge of ministering God’s love to those who are in the most difficult of life circumstances. Grace and Peace.

  8. As a current student, I see unethical, even illegal, behavior by my supervisor (outright racism); however, because there is no way to evaluate supervisors, and they get 45 days after they read your evaluation of them to do their evaluation of you, there is no accountability for poor, unprofessional, or negligent supervisors. I agree that unless supervisors are evaluated anonymously, the ACPE training system will continue to be deeply flawed.

    Also, as a current CPE “student” with previous clinical experience in health care, I am disturbed that we are not learning any actual skills for being a chaplain. Instead, we are sent to the floors to meet with patients and families, and come to “class” to talk about our mothers, our “shadows,” and engage in petty fault-finding with each other. I was relieved to see the SCA articulate the need for outcome-based learning and evaluation, rather than having to endure the unlicensed amateur psychoanalysis forced on students in ACPE and CPSP, which has even deeper problems with education and objectivity.

      • I’m very sorry to hear that. If you’re still in CPE, I’d speak up about it to the group and use that exact word “bully”. Can you say a bit more about what went on?

      • I had a similar problem in CPE and I took 4 units. Throughout the program I got criticized for not declaring just one faith – I got in listing 4 different faith traditions with 4 ordinations. It’s the old story about if you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you choose one, then automatically there are preconceived notions about how one thinks, and therefore, how different they are compared to another. So I put up with the bullying or criticism as all part of the challenge. In the end, it is up to you to blow them off and show them that you can take it. It’s how you react that will show them that no matter what, you will take your stand. In the final analysis, chaplaincy is about bringing a higher power to everyone with all faith traditions or no faith tradition. Just think of this- churches are structured to minister primarily to those who are not members – as in evangelism as opposed to proselytization. Maintain a tough shell and still be kind to everybody, loving and empathetic. You can be better than those that criticize. It’s all about God within you that works through you to help others, whether you know or they know it.

  9. All CPE Supervisors are not the same. Some ‘adopt’ their individual method of assessment and ‘judgement’ on the students and so forget that for many, CPE is ‘an avenue’ to accomplish one’s vocation in ministry.

  10. I Agree with you. CPE is not what it designed to achieve. Well in My Case. I found that my teacher using the same principles and Methodology as the use in prison and other institution. yet they do not change the person. What is left is the failure to give or teach one the tools in order to affect that change. can a leopard change there spots? yes they can. a change of the perceived Nature. JK.

  11. Hi – great discussion. I graduated from seminary and was working in a couple of churches before I decided to make a change to Spiritual Care. I have two basic units and two advanced with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care. One of the challenges was to realize we all carry some baggage and in order to not shut down at the bedside, or be unwilling to hear what some may want to tell you, it was important to be willing to see that baggage or be challenged in CPE rather than carry that to the bedside so to speak. I was never chalkenged in Seminary as I was in CPE. So many leave Seminary with the same blinders they entered with and then wonder why all fell apart in their parish. I know why some Seminaries require you take CPE but if they don’t explain why and if there is no invested interest in becoming vulnerable, then it is futile. Yes, some depends on supervisors/clash of personality or methods but most fails in these settings I would imagine is because it is something being forced without adequate understanding. A CPE group must be small and trust with each other and your supervisor must be there. And yes there are avenues that can be taken if unhealthy. I don’t know many pastors who have a peer review every 5 years as supervisors are required to do. Many leave Seminary unhealthy but unwilling to admit that – CPE can be very helpful when approached with a desire to learn about yourself – the good, the unhealthy, and where those triggers are! It sounds like the forcing of CPE on those not ready is more broken than CPE, but I had exceptional supervisors who sometimes can be there to process those painful challenges from other members in the group. I value CPE – I heard of someone in a CPE group with two Seminarians who had to be there. It was not a good experience because they never entered the process. I am frustrated with that supervisor who let them continue and also stated they met the reqirements at the end. I would sure like to know where those two souls are today!! Thanks for letting me weigh in! And yes – At least In Canada, I think CPE is always improving.

    • Thanks for your response! I’ve been pleased with the discussion so far as well, and a bit surprised at the strength of interest. I agree with your comments about how many leave seminary unhealthy but never quite own up to it. Ministry can draw people who come not out of their own brokenness but out of their own sense of (false)wholeness.

  12. What an insightful blog and discussion. Wow! I am sooo glad I didn’t google CPE! I started my first unit at the suggestion of a Grief Group Facilitator, who was also a Hospice Chaplain. I had been doing nursing home visitation for over 20 years in the various churches I was a part of. Both of my parents died in hospice, as did my father-in-law. While I was taking my first unit, I volunteer with a Hospice company to complete the necessary visitation hours.
    My first unit was with six other women and my supervisor, Rabbi David Glicksman, was an Orthodox Rabbi. The next three units have been all men in spiritual leadership positions, leaving me as the only woman. I am only 5 months away from completing my fourth year! My supervisor has been the same during all four units.
    I have LOVED my CPE experience! It has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. It has caused me to have a deeper understanding of myself, which has greatly improved my personal relationship with God. At first, IPR was very uncomfortable and those moments of silence were deafening to me! However, as I gave into the process, I found myself hearing more of the voice of God (not literarlly!). I received much revelation. Each year, I opted to do a Theological Reflection on something I personally was struggling with. These reflections have been life changing for me!
    I feel so blessed to have such a wonderful supervisor who is accepting of who I am (a born again Christian). He has helped me to see God outside of my “evangelical” box and I have received much healing from my times of supervision with him, as he challenged me to look beyond the expected. I feel so bad for those who have had such ugly experiences. I wish they could have been a part of my units because bullying would have never been tolerated. I will be forever indebted to Rabbi Glicksman. He has impacted me in ways that will have eternal ramifications for the better.
    I currently am in my third year of employment as a hospice chaplain. CPE has been ALOT of work but I’m so glad I chose to stick it ou,t and I have been blessed with four great units and wonderful colleagues.

  13. My first unit of CPE is coming up this summer. I am in my second year of seminary and I googled CPE experience and came across your blog. I better start praying now, because I am a little scared now.

    • It is intimidating, but don’t let that hinder you. Frankly I know more people that had good experiences than bad, and some of those bad experiences were self-inflicted. Praying all goes well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s