Editor’s Note: CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education, a program in which students work as chaplains in a hospital. If you are interested in CPE, contact Dr. Mark Jensen.
In this article, I reflect back to the spring 2017 semester. The Tablet was offering staff positions to Wake Div students. After praying and thinking about it, I submitted a written piece. At the time, I had a great deal to pontificate about. Politics, theology, and the shortcomings of the Church where all topics I could go on and on about. Honestly, it was probably best they didn’t ask me to join.
Now, fast-forward to this semester and the untimely email I receive from the editors asking me to consider joining the staff. My initial thought was: Sweet! This will be a great outlet to express my thoughts. After the enthusiasm ebbed, however, it dawned on me: I have nothing to say!?! The things that seemed so important to write about mere months ago were now just not that important. Why is that? I asked myself.
The answer: CPE.
As students of Wake Div, we have the privilege and opportunity to partner with the chaplaincy and pastoral education division at Wake Forest Baptist Health Center, a program dedicated to educating ministers in the clinical setting for over 60 years. This summer, Wake Div was amply represented as five current students received 10 intense weeks of pastoral education. Being one of those five, my purpose in writing about my CPE journey is twofold. First, I hope to offer a service for those who are considering a future summer unit of CPE with practical information about the program (i.e., cost, schedule, and expectations). Secondly, I wish to share the significant experience of my journey because it has challenged and changed me in ways I am still processing two months after the fact. For me, CPE is comparable to waves that continuously refine and shape the water’s edge. While the first wave to hit is struggling with pastoral identity, the next wave was stirring up a prophetic inclination concerning corporate hospitals and the ministry of mercy. However, the one wave that has almost taken me under is the problem of human suffering.
Knock on the door. “Hello, my name is _______ and I am a chaplain here at the hospital.”
By the end of week one of this 10-week intensive CPE experience, this will be you. You may or may not even know what a chaplain does in the clinical setting. I certainly did not. Yet there I was, in all my introverted glory, knocking on strangers’ doors, entering the private spaces of people at potentially their worst point in life. The following 10 weeks will consist of 40-plus-hour work weeks, which is divided between time spent in the clinical and educational settings, with repeating moments of knocking on door after door and listening to story after story, each changing your story along the way.
In addition, there is an on-call rotation that you will be placed on by end of week two. Trial by fire, my friends! The on-call chaplain is responsible for responding or delegating all calls received through the on-call pager for a 24-hour period. For example, I would arrive at the medical facility at 8 a.m. on a Thursday and cover my assigned clinical units until 5 p.m. From that point until 8 a.m. on Friday, I would be the only chaplain to cover the entire medical complex. Pack a bag and have a Netflix account, because you will be staying overnight in a room that may have been a set piece in The Shining. (I’m not mentioning names, but some of our Wake Div peers refuse to stay in it.) My main point: on-call means that a chaplain may be at the bedside of a patient at the end of their life (EOL) at 8 p.m. on Reynolds 4, another at 11 p.m. at the MICU, another 15 minutes later in the ED, and yet another one at 4 a.m. in the Cancer Center. In between all these EOLs— which, to remind you, are real people with real, hurting loved ones left behind—the chaplain could be handing out meal vouchers, responding to pastoral care visits, and—oh, yes—trying to maintain a level of self-care. At other times, that Netflix account comes in handy when only one call is received the entire evening portion of the shift.
Before arriving to the first door or being on-call for the first time, there are a few other things to consider. One, there is a significant amount of writing involved. Unlike what we do at Wake Div (i.e., academic writing), the writing in a unit of CPE is all self-reflection based. There are five application essays, weekly reflections, verbatims, and mid-unit and final evaluations.
Second, there is a financial investment to be aware of ($400). For me, I justified the cost of attendance in the program by thinking of it as more education. ACPE is the accrediting organization that clinical pastoral education centers, like WFBHC, utilize to train ministers in the clinical setting. So, just to be clear: you work a 40-plus-hour work week, but do not expect payment for this time. Expect to pay.
Finally, there is sacrifice. For my family there was, of course, a financial sacrifice. The financial aspect boils down to however you and the Source of All Things work through this issue. The other sacrifice to be aware of is time. My family has been adjusted to the 40-hour work week from my past career. But, the 24-hour on-call rotations, which do occur on the weekends, was an adjustment. The thing to keep in mind and to reassure your loved ones is that this unit of CPE is temporary. The more complex issue for the family, the one I turn to next, is the change that occurs in their loved one during the journey of CPE.
Buddhist have it right when concluding life is dukkha, or suffering. Human suffering was made radically tangible in a way I will never forget. For this reason, the word suffering has been on the forefront of my mind for two months. Reflectively, Christianity is on par with our shared human experience (i.e., suffering). Right? At least we are not alone in this journey. First, we have others to console in and be human with, and the chaplain’s task is being present in those moments. Second (and theologically thinking for a moment), as a chaplain questioning the “problem of evil” or suffering daily, I find comfort in my Christian faith because my God suffered on the cross for all creation. Through this God’s suffering, all have redemption and an eternal hope. In the here and now, we all share in suffering, but in the eternal we all share in the hope of life. Specifically, with this hope in mind I recall the patients that maintained hope while facing death. Their stories have left everlasting impressions on my story. Their stories have changed my theology. Their stories have changed the way I look at the Other with fresh lens of love, compassion, and a reformed perspective on life. Their stories have refined what is and is not meaningful in my own life.
If you are thinking about journeying on the path of CPE, then be prepared to change.