I’ve been kinda quiet here lately. In real life, too, unless you’re one of My People. Then I’ve been rather chattery. Nerves, you see.
We here at Raising Faith are dealing with Many Big Events In the Formation Process.
Mostly, I’ve been taking lots of deep breaths. I’m getting very good at that. Someday you might not even be able to tell that I’m breathing.
In one month and one week, I start CPE (that stands for Clinical Pastoral Education) at a medium-sized metropolitan hospital.
I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t tell you much about how it will be. But, thanks to numerous versions of this very conversation, I can tell you what you’re likely to ask me—in order, even.
Those exchanges generally end with you looking astonished and slightly horrified. Which in my head I translate as, “I do not understand . . . and Wow.” Or, maybe, “You really have made some terrible life choices.”
Maybe so. Sometimes I wonder. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, though, I realized I can use printed words to really answer the questions. We have time here, and space, and . . . . it’s just easier.
So: here goes.
Clinical Pastoral Education. It means chaplain rotations at a hospital. It’s like a full time job, time-wise; I’ll be at the hospital through the workweek, and work an overnight shift once every six days. Since I won’t be in my hometown, but in a nearby city, it’s fortunate that the hospital has an on-call room where I can stay during the night shifts.
That commute sounds rough. Why don’t you just be a chaplain at our local hospital?
For a CPE program, you need a hospital that has not just chaplains on staff, but resources for training and supervising new chaplains. This is like the difference between a hospital that trains and teaches doctors and a hospital that merely employs them. Facilities with the capacity for chaplain training can, in general, be found here: Like most areas of health care, programs for chaplain education are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.
Fortunately, I live near just such an area. Also fortunately, the hospital consortium I’ll be serving with is working on a deal with my smaller community hospital that would allow me to do some shifts locally. This is probably obvious, but I am a big fan of that idea. We’ll see if it works out.
Do you get paid?
No. In fact, it costs money. There are several sources of potential financial aid available to help defray the costs, but completing a unit of CPE means paying fees to both the hospital and my seminary.
Hmm. And do you know what you’re doing?
Not really. I did take a required class at my seminary this spring. It was fine. But I wouldn’t say I feel prepared.
How is that ok?
I can’t really answer that. I will tell you that I have know talked with at least 40 people about their experiences going through CPE and that not one of them has said “I knew what I was doing.” At all.
I was going to add, “and nobody died!” but probably, that’s not true. That’s, you know, one of the reasons you might need a chaplain.
You don’t sound very excited. Isn’t this what you wanted to do in the first place?
Yeah, about that. So back when I first acknowledged to myself that I was discerning a call to ministry, a primary point of terror was that it made no sense. None. I had a whole life, which I mostly loved, and none of it pointed this way.
Except. I spent five years volunteering and then working at a crisis counseling center with a particular focus on suicide prevention and grief support. Then three more years assisting a complicated grief group at a family support center. Then I got a grant to do some research around grief and the legal process. Later, in the education field, I did my masters project around supporting families of young children in grief.
So you see, I had this beautiful aha moment, one I clung to as I jumped off what felt like a very tall cliff: I’m not interested in ministry, per se. I just want to find an authentic way to be present to families who have experienced a loss. I could be a chaplain. And better still: I could be a pediatric chaplain!
Eureka. Insanity explained.
And now, 18 months later, that pediatric chaplain vision still lives in a corner of my mind. She’s increasingly cramped, though, by things like radical hospitality in congregational life, the intersection of the sacred and the secular in our voluntary organizations, the opportunities every day to recognize the humanity in another and, quoting Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. So I don’t think about her much these days. And also, there’s the reality that she might actually need a chaplain herself.
Trigger warning: this is a very sad story. And it’s not mine. And for that reason, details have been changed. The thing is, last month I rode home from Chicago on the train, returning from my last set of seminary intensives for this year. I ate in the dining car with my friend and colleague. During that meal, we shared a table and talked love and life with the two women across from us. They were a generation older than we, one already a grandmother several times over, and the other excited to greet, this month, her first grandchild. It was a story of joy and expectation.
Until, over dessert, we began to talk ministry. And then the second woman told me a different story. Of another first grandchild. A beautiful baby boy, Evan—the pregnancy was perfect. His birth went fine. And Evan went home to his loving and overjoyed family . . . but he failed to thrive.
Eventually, he was scheduled for exploratory surgery. It revealed a hidden heart defect. And, during that that surgery, one which the family has been told was merely a routine step in a longer diagnostic process, Evan died.
This woman, this grandmother of loss, and grandmother-to-be—her faith and her grace, her openness and hope— she was luminous. I hold her in my heart. And Evan. And his new baby sister. Lord, let her grow.
I, on the other hand, was a mess. I was physically present, don’t get me wrong, and I managed to keep the tears mostly in my eyes. But friends, my heart is not the heart I had when I did those other things. The griefy things.
I have a mama heart now, and it throbs frequently and breaks easily and just is probably not cut out for this chaplain stuff.
I spent that conversation listening through the treacherous haze of a mental battle, one that went something like, “OMG, I Cannot. Handle. This./Seriously woman Keep Your Shit Together/ How are you ever going to be a minister if you can’t even be present with Random Lady on a Train?
And that, friends, is when my pre-CPE crisis began in earnest. You know, the what the hell was I thinking, this is an awful way to spend a summer and maybe also my life crisis.
My casual observations indicate that we all get to this realization at some point. That we really are not enough for what is being asked of us. How could we be? No one is.
And yet—and here is that maddening ministry piece again—
Then we do it anyway. You wake up, one morning in your bed, or one evening on a train in the face of hope and loss sitting across from you and your chocolate mousse, and you know you cannot do it, there’s no way you can do it, no one could do it . . .
And then you do it.
All of that said though, that experience on the train was like having a dash of cold water in the face of my pediatric chaplain vision. Because, you know, no one really comes to the children’s hospital because they’re having a really great day.
And yep, someone needs to be there with those families. To be there with each of us, when it is our turn.
I’m just not sure I’m made of tough enough stuff for that to be me.
You’re right; that sounds terrible. Why would anyone do this thing?
The immediately available answer is: we do it because we have to.
If you know a minister in a denomination that requires an M.Div., ask her about her CPE experience. She had one.
But why do you have to do that?
Everyone I have talked to—you know, the ones who did not say they knew what they were doing—has given me the same answer about this. It’s very short. And totally predictable. It’s like it comes to you in a personal fortune cookie at a closing CPE banquet.
That answer is: CPE breaks you open. You hold and hurt for and walk with other people’s pain—and your own—until you break. And then, eventually, with help, you put yourself back together. As a person who can be at peace amid pain.
There’s variation on the amount of collegial support or competitive torture that people report experiencing with their cohorts, or their supervisors, or the nursing staff . . . and some people have 5 minutes to answer a page and some have 30 . . . but the process and its effects sound pretty standard.
Sound really, impossibly hard? I agree with you.
Seminarians do it anyway.