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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ask the Matriarch: ISO Good CPE

Thursday TOTALLY snuck up on me this week. Are the rest of you as busy as I am? Wow!

On to the question:

Dear Matriarchs,

I'm wondering what advice you would give seminarians for choosing a clinical pastoral education placement. I'm a first-year seminarian and will have to figure out both within the next few months. How does one find a good supervisor? How do you find the balance between a placement that will stretch you but not so much that you barely survive it? How do you sustain yourself spiritually during CPE? What advice would you give for getting the most out of the experience? What advice would you give to someone who has previous experience in a medical setting, but not as a chaplain?

Thank you!!

A resounding chorus from our participating matriarchs this week (Peripatetic Polar Bear, Jan, Abi and St. Casserole): Talk to people who have done CPE at that location and with that supervisor before, and think carefully about what sort of placement interests you.

Ask around
“There will probably be folks at your seminary, and if not, simply ask the hospital if there are former students willing to talk,” says PPB. “Each setting is very unique, and the ins and outs are best heard from previous students.” Also, ask some of the other students about various supervisors they’ve had, says Abi. Jan notes that if you ask your trusted friends, they can give you “solid CPE recommendations. So much depends upon the situation: the hospital, the particular unit, the supervisor.”

Writes PPB, “That said, there is a certain sense of bravado that accompanies CPE students. Don't be surprised to hear all sorts of stories. Remember, though, that these stories matter because they were departures from the norm, not the norm. And, expect to be challenged by your CPE supervisor. It's a unique role—a combination of teacher and mentor.”

One thing to consider is whether you would prefer a male or female supervisor, says Abi, and she points out that you can visit the website for ACPE at for a list of supervisors and settings, as well as a FAQ section.

Choosing a placement

And there is the question of what CPE area most appeals to you. “Which one(s) interest you?,” asks St. Casserole. “I did CPE in a med-surg hospital and loved all of my quarters in two different hospitals.” What are you well suited for, she continues, will help you determine how to “stretch” healthfully. “The ‘stretch’ of CPE is the strength of the program,” she explains. “Learning about yourself in a clinical setting will help you in ministry. What makes you angry and why? What provokes you and why? Are you trying to save those entrusted to your care or are you allowing God to work through you? How can you be available to those who hate what your represent? How do you provide care to the staff? All these things and more are ‘stretching’ exercises for ministry.”

Jan notes that sometimes women are always put into pediatrics or labor/delivery and neonatal intensive care (NIC) units. You may be more or less inclined to avoid the addictions unit. You might want to seek out a placement with a rotation, so that you can experience many different units.

Location, location, location
Jan offers these questions to consider when choosing a placement: “Is the hospital staff used to/respectful of chaplains? Is it a church-based hospital that might have an immediate issue with women in ministry? That could bad for you. Is it a teaching hospital? That could be good for you. Is it a mental health hospital? That might be very helpful if you are going into parish ministry.” Abi notes that other variations from hospital placements include correctional facilities and nursing homes.

PPB was sustained spiritually by the beautiful folks that she visited—mostly the elderly, and by my persistent use of music as therapy. “I would go home and play the guitar,” she says. “When I was on-call (we did 56 hour on-call weekends), I'd bring my guitar. It became important to me to be creating new material in the midst of so many endings.”

To sustain oneself spiritually, one needs to spend time in prayer, worship, meditation and prayer, writes Abi, but don’t forget you. “Be sure you have friends outside the CPE setting that you are with, and are doing other things with,” she says.

St. Casserole agrees that you should continue with your regular spiritual disciplines. “You may learn more about your faith in CPE. Seeing God in the midst of tragedy in a clinical setting is a spiritual and theological act,” she says.

Déjà vu?
Don’t forget what you know as someone with previous experience in a medical setting, but don’t depend on it either. “What you know already will be of help to you in CPE but I believe you will see yourself in a different way when you act as a chaplain,” says St. Casserole.

Jan agrees, and notes that sometimes if you go in thinking you know what’s going on, you may make things worse. “As a pastor, my worst experiences with CPE students/certified chaplains have occurred because they assumed too many things.” Once, she was sitting in blue jeans with an elder at bedside of her dying ex-husband—she had called Jan in the middle of the night to ask her to come because, even though he was a terrible husband, she didn’t want him to die alone. “She told me ‘bad husband stories’ all night, and when the time came for him to die, a chaplain came in and assumed that F. was the desperately grieving wife and I was the shattered daughter and she proceeded to pray a long, long prayer about how much we were going to miss ‘our loving husband and father.’”

Getting the most out of it
First, be prepared for it. Jan once did 23 baby funerals in a single month—which also coincided with a broken engagement. Sustaining herself during this time was incredibly challenging, and she doesn’t recommend doing CPE during a difficult personal time. “Ways to battle overwhelming sadness/hopelessness?” she says. “Surround yourself with good friends, write about it in your blog, hone your dark sense-of-humor skills.”

If not your blog (or another, more anonymous one), Abi suggests a journal for recording your personal observations. “Be open to learning, experiencing, asking questions, and be open about yourself,” she says. “Learn to give feedback without belittling the other person and to receive feedback as well.”

PPB writes, “I did my CPE as an extended unit, something I'd recommend to others highly. I was able to integrate my study of theology and the normalcy of my on-campus life with hospital life, and that worked really well for my personality.”

And St. Casserole offers, “My advice for getting the most out of the experience would be for you to invest yourself in the program as much as you are able.”

Perhaps some of you would like to share your CPE anecdotes? What to look for, what to avoid? Post them in comments below. And if you have a question for the matriarchs, send it along to


  1. Wow - this is quite timely for me - I am pursuing doing my CPE either this summer or next. Unlike some, my seminary only grants credit once the certificate is in hand, so it can't be during a regular fall/spring semester.

    Looking forward to reading more from those who have BTDT!

    d :)

  2. I'm going for a full year this next time. My last placement was wonderful; my supervisor for that round of CPE actually helped me select the placement for this next round (starting probably next September). I am definitely biased; if I were on the Board of Ordained Ministry, I would require at least two full units before ordination because I learned more about ministry, theology and myself in CPE than I have in seminary -- and even more than I have learned in actual ministry!

    That said, know that it's not easy. There is no faking it most of the time. And it can be definitely uncomfortable. As are most times of real growth.

    I know that I've changed -- a good friend tells me that my worship is now more integrated; that it's "heart liturgy" and not just "head liturgy" much more often now.

    Journaling is an excellent idea. Most of what occured were things I will never blog about, because it's just too close to the skin and most of the stories are not my stories to tell.

    God Bless you on this journey!

  3. Good advice, all around. I did a single unit of CPE at a state mental hospital. I was PETRIFIED, but it was a great experience. I, of course, learned a lot about myself, as the others have said. But what has proven equally valuable is the on-the-job education I received in mental illness. It was eye-opening both in that summer and has opened my eyes to the mental illness in church members and their families as well. Good luck!

  4. Hi I did a three month (required) CPE-- thought I would be tossed out on my ear (ok, and other parts) within two week-- I hated sick people, hospitals, doctors and (well you get the picture) I'm prone to anxiety and figured I would hate every minute. So I could NOT have planned anything (and in the Bay Area (California) there are nine seminaries and only a few openings-- I took what was available. And it was, well fantastic..and I eventually took a full year at the same hopsital. So whatever happens, (and I had two good supervisors and the supervisor from hell)you will learn! More than you probably ever wanted. Blessings, and enjoy every minute and opportunity (even the really really hard bits) Gail

  5. Ugh. I have to confess that I really hated CPE. Visiting people was certainly a good experience, good preparation, though it is rare in my current setting that I'm visiting people I have no other relationship with - but it helped me get over some of those fears. But I really hated the psychotherapy model. My supervisor was very into trying to find the hidden meaning in every little thing - the color crayon we used in our art projects (yes, art projects) etc. Oh well. It was required. I survived. I moved on ;)

  6. Best of luck choosing a CPE site. Its hard to know what aspect of CPE will be challenging before you begin so I would say to trust your intuition. I did CPE for 3 months at a Catholic Hospital outside of Philly 2 years ago and it was a transformative experience but in ways that I never expected!

  7. Great job again ladies, thank you. My favorite line? "Is it a mental health hospital? That might be very helpful if you are going into parish ministry.”

    This is where I spent my yearlong and it was great. I did come out of there wishing that my regular parishioners had a folder in an office where I could just look up what their problem was!

  8. I'm with Will Smama - love the line about parish ministry!!

    I had a pretty rough CPE experience because of problems with the supervisor. But one of the most fulfilling things in that experience was the weekly worship we were able to establish in the hospital that summer... our group was two Epsicopalians, two very different brands of Baptist, and a Pentecostal woman. We had sort of a pattern of music, reading and prayer for a half-hour lunchtime service. It was attended almost exclusively by staff, as it turned out, but by the end of the 10 weeks, we had hopsital staff members participating in readings and prayers - it was the most spiritually grounding and fulfilling experience of the summer.

  9. Come on in, the water's fine. Well actually it was dark and scary the first few weeks, but it is getting better. I just finished my evaluation for the first unit of a four unit CPE residency. It was very tough at the beginning, but I feel much more comfortable now. I sort of fell into my position, so I can't help with how to choose. I can tell you how to get the most out of it is to see yourself as a learner. This is hard for me since we are doing pastoral care before we know all the material. Ackkk! What if I mess up? On the other hand everything we learn in class and meetings means so much more because it come from real experiences. I am growing and learning by the minute. Come by my blog for periodic reflections about CPE.

  10. Me too, will smama! How many times I have wished for just a glimpse at someone's chart. It would be so enlightening. And not just church members--people at the grocery store, those weird neighbors, everyone. (Of course *I* would never need such a chart or file or notebook full of diagnoses, no way)

  11. I loved CPE. I actually went on to serve as a hospice chaplain in two different states -- so I guess CPE helped with that discernment process.


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