Since I’m probably going to be mentioning CPE on here quite a bit, I thought it would be good to start with a brief introduction. If you’ve taken CPE feel free to share your thoughts and horror stories in the comments!

What is CPE?

CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education, though in my first unit we had a lot of fun coming up with other words for the acronym (Clowns Prefer Elephants, Crazy People Ensemble). There’s an Association for CPE, although they really need a better website and should contact my husband asap! Here’s how they define CPE:

CPE is interfaith professional education for ministry. It brings theological students and ministers of all faiths (pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and others) into supervised encounter with persons in crisis. Out of an intense involvement with persons in need, and the feedback from peers and teachers, students develop new awareness of themselves as persons and of the needs of those to whom they minister. From theological reflection on specific human situations, they gain a new understanding of ministry. Within the interdisciplinary team process of helping persons, they develop skills in interpersonal and interprofessional relationships.

This is a fancy way of saying we teach people how to be chaplains and/or more equipped clergy-persons. 

How does it work?

CPE is done in units. One “unit” = 300 hours of clinical time (visiting patients) + 100 hours of education. It’s a mix of individual supervision, group process work, didactics and lots o’ writing.

Single units can be done in an intensive 10 week summer program (popular with seminary students) or part-time over the course of a semester or an academic year.

For those who are gluttons for punishment, they can take 3-4 units consecutively in the form of a residency. (Like doctors, but shorter, usually 9 months to a year and very often with just as many on-calls and sleepless nights)

How does one learn to become a chaplain?

You mostly learn by doing. And then reflecting and then reflecting some more. There are lots of aspects to those 100 education hours, and one of the classic tools is called a Verbatim. For my social work friends, think Process Recordings. For everyone else, it’s essentially a play-by-play of what happened in a patient room. A CPE Student has to write down the entire conversation like a script.  Like this –

  • Chaplain: Hi, I’m Chaplain _____, can I visit with you?
  • Patient: Yes, I’m so upset, I just got diagnosed with cancer.
  • Chaplain: Oh that’s nice. The weather outside is beautiful today.

Then the student presents it to her/his peer group and supervisor and we say “Umm, what made you talk about the weather rather than dealing with the cancer diagnosis?!!!!”

Lots of fun, drama and learning about yourself so that you can provide better care to others.

I should also mention that while most CPE centers are hospitals, there are other accredited placements out there, like nursing homes, churches, counseling centers, etc. If you’re inspired, we’re in the process of interviewing for our next unit starting in February!