Many seminary students will be starting their first unit of CPE in a few short weeks. Summer CPE is the most intensive way to do a unit, as everything is crammed into 10 or 11 weeks. Additionally, it’s usually students’ first exposure to working in a hospital, and dealing with their issues in a group process setting. Here is my advice to get through the process, and perhaps even learn something from it.
- Dress for Comfort – Wear comfortable shoes. If you follow one piece of advice from this list, let it be this. You will be on your feet for a good chunk of the day, you need to treat your doggies well. As a young, somewhat style conscious female, I shudder at the idea of “sensible shoes”, but am glad that flats are in style. Also, layers are your friend. It’s hot outside, cold in the hospital rooms, and you’ll be on the “hot seat” in peer group and verbatim sessions. I tend to wear a lot of cardigans and blazers. Pockets are great too for keys, pagers, pens, business cards, etc.
- Clear your schedule – Shortly before beginning my Summer unit, I naively signed up to preach every other week in a local church. After receiving the syllabus on my first day, I immediately bailed out of my Sunday morning responsibilities. With on-call shifts and all the writing that needs to be done outside of the 9-5 schedule, preparing and delivering sermons would have been too stressful. Not to mention how exhausted I was at the end of each day
- Find an outlet – You’re probably going to need a way to clear your mind, or space out for a bit. A friend of mine discovered how much she enjoyed running during her summer unit. I did a lot of journaling and walks through the local park. Also, never underestimate the power of mindless television.
- Forget what you’ve heard – It’s easy to go into CPE with preconceived notions of what the experience will be like. Heck, half the Google searches that lead folks to this blog are for “CPE Horror Stories!” I remember hearing that CPE was something you either loved or hated. While clearly I lean toward one side of that, the experience is more nuanced. You might enjoy it or you might not – but I doubt it will be in extremes, and more importantly, you will learn something.
- Flexibility is key – This learning model is probably different from the academic approach of most seminaries. It requires reflection, and lots of it. It might feel weird at first. I watch students struggle with acclimating to this style of education. Flexibility is also important for being a chaplain, as you never know what to expect when you enter a patient’s room!
- Be Honest w/ yourself – And your peers and your supervisors. This is your process and you will only get out of it what you put into it. No one benefits from hiding what’s really going on in the midst of your experience. It’s natural in our society to be guarded about our feelings and vulnerable experiences. But when you acknowledge what you’re really going through, liberation and learning can follow.
- Embrace your mistakes – We learn by making mistakes. I expect my students to make lots of them. If every student provided perfect pastoral care from day one, I’d be out of a job!
- Identify some “lifelines” – Speaking of mindless tv, take a page out of “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and have some folks you can reach out to in high stakes situations. It can be helpful to have some friends/seminary colleagues you can turn to who are also doing CPE at another center. It’s good to connect with people who get what you’re going through and who know you outside of your peer group.
- Plan a vacation/staycation afterward – I finished my summer unit and then had to study for PC(USA) Ordination exams. I do not recommend this! I’m aware that finances are tough for most CPE Interns (you’ve just paid lots of money to work all Summer!) but see if you can get away or have something relaxing to look forward to at the end of it all.
- Wash your hands – Ok, maybe this is more important than good shoes. Of course hospital culture is concerned with this and I’ve seen lots of corny videos extolling the virtues of cleanliness. It’s certainly crucial to protect patients, but also for your protection. CPE is exhausting and will take a toll on your health. I expect my students to get sick or start dragging halfway through the summer. Washing your hands helps avoid falling ill. As does sleeping and vitamins – but my husband will attest that I’m not great with either of those…
Other CPE Survivors out there, leave your advice for the new students in the comments!