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.