Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is an action-reflection process of education, preparing the way for people to work as spiritual carers. This may be primary work, e.g. someone who wants to work as a chaplain, or it may be a secondary component of work that is already being done, e.g. a counselor who is looking to integrate spirituality into their praxis.
CPE was created by Anton Boisen, a Congregational minister in the US. Boisen struggled with mental health and was treated in a psychiatric hospital. He connected his experiences to the idea of pastoral formation in a clinical setting. Boisen invited theological students to minister to the “living human documents” in the hospital, and then to reflect on how they provided care.
CPE requires clinical ‘action’ — providing one-on-one care to people, usually in challenging situations and environments. This is followed up with ‘reflection.’ Typically, reflection takes the shape of an education day with colleagues reviewing Pastoral Encounter Reviews (PERs), short seminars, open groups, rituals, and more.
CPE also has different levels. There is the basic, or first unit, which is where everyone starts. You can then take additional units that enhance your learning. Advanced units require a focus, additional work and a panel review. Supervisors also go through a similar process, though they must demonstrate advanced capability as they are supervising beginning CPE participants.
I was ordained as an Interspiritual Minister by One Spirit in 2013. I moved abroad during seminary and started a family soon after, so it was a challenge for me to put that training to use as my primary work. But after the shit show that was 2020 (and hey, is any of it really over?) I knew I had to take control where I could. I considered my options for spiritual care and while the attitudes toward interfaith ministry in Australia had lightened considerably, it was still not formally recognized.
What became clear was that all potential employers wanted at least one unit of CPE, preferably two. So I reviewed the programs available and applied. Near the end of my unit, I was hired as a Chaplain in an aged care facility. This isn’t how it happens for everyone, but it was a blessing for me as I love the work and it will allow me to do a second unit and get paid for the clinical aspect.
It’s been just over a month since I completed CPE, so it feels like a good time to reflect and share my five favorite takeaways from CPE.
Providing professional care in an interdisciplinary environment
You may have ideas about how you will provide care, but they are just thoughts. Until you are thrown into the deep end, you won’t know whether you will sink or swim. You will most certainly get wet, with real suffering, questions you won’t know how to answer, and unexpected reactions. You will discover that emotional labor is tiring af. You will learn about medicine, or aged care, or the prison system, wherever you land will teach you. And you will navigate the politics and proclivities of all the people who are working and learning alongside you.
The experience of ritual
In most programs, you will have the opportunity to create and experience rituals. You may get a bit of guidance to lead off but ideally everyone will be free to create whatever calls them. In my experience, it became an invitation to reflect on my experience with and the value I see in ritual. As the experience of others’ rituals moves through you, your imagination will expand — what other needs are there? Who can benefit from this? What are we capable of moving or healing with these acts? Why is this missing from our lives? Rituals can remake us.
Practice and reflection of care in a diverse, interspiritual context
You will provide care and put those acts into reflection. You will do this for people with traditional faith journeys, complicated ones, and those who have abandoned or don’t believe in Spirit. There will be theological reflections and beliefs within your cohort that will brighten and amaze you, and some that may frustrate or even anger you. You will learn what to say, and when, and most importantly, what not to say. You will make your way with your lists, first picking out who you want to visit, and why. And eventually you will only look at the list for the names, or for how long they have been. You will understand, in your own way, that everyone in front of you needs the kind of care that you provide. And if they don’t accept it today, you learn not to take it personally.
Regardless of whether your program is full or part-time, CPE will fill your heart and mind wherever there are cracks. Internal review and exploration is part and parcel through things like clinical supervision, review of significant encounters, and spiritual reflection. But the experiences you have, the people you support and pray for, the pressure of getting it out and onto a document will seep through in unexpected ways. You will dream about it. Your significant relationships may shift. You will learn to experiment, both in and out of the role. You will pull out old spiritual technologies and find they still work. And all of these will make you a better person and minister (however you define that).
In the places where qualifications are required for offering spiritual care, CPE is the gold standard. Despite it being a Christian-derived and oriented program, it works well across beliefs and orientations. And on completion, people who are hiring may ask subtle questions about your experience in CPE, but you won’t be grilled. It is appreciated that the learning and growth gained through this program are translatable across caring environments and other borders.
My takeaways are mine, of course, but I am confident that everyone who experiences CPE will exit with all of the above. You will have begun or deepened your journey of identifying as a spiritual carer, and made space for Reality to work through you.
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