Ministers formed through the looking glass in CPE program



Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing. —Oscar Wilde

The overwhelming load of experiences gained in a Clinical Pastoral Education program is overshadowed only by the extensive amount of inner reflection that is necessary to learn from the experiences. Unlike a typical classroom, where the textbook and the teacher provide the fruit, in the CPE setting students bring their own food for thought.

CPE programs are an intensive and highly experiential learning process. The interfaith effort prepares people for work in parish ministry, chaplaincy, lay ministry, teaching and counseling. Through working with patients in a variety of settings, the students, or chaplain interns, come to form their own identity in pastoral ministry. The students record their daily experiences with patients in verbatims, which become a reference tool for them.

Within the first few days of the 11-week unit, the chaplain interns are visiting patients and learning by trial and error. The biggest surprise for many students is the depth of self-awareness embedded in the training program. As they come to understand themselves more fully, the students begin to develop their ministerial skills. Through working with patients in hospitals, hospices and nursing care facilities, students discern their strengths and weaknesses. A rigorous process for which some hoped they’d have more training, but the training’s in the doing.

“I thought we’d be developing more of a toolbox, but you have to know who you are before you pick up the toolbox,” said Carson Bush, a Catholic seminarian in the Palmetto Health Alliance CPE program in Columbia.

“There is a steep learning curve,” Mercy Sister Pat O’Donovan said frankly. “We offer guidelines, but most of the learning is through reflecting and sharing.

“Many are anxious in the beginning,” she said. “The focus is for people to get in touch with their own strengths and develop those strengths to form their own personal identity, and then develop competence in pastoral work.”

Sister O’Donovan was recently named director of the CPE program at Bon Secours-St. Francis Xavier Hospital in Charleston. She succeeded Bon Secours Sister Gemma Neville who began the program about 12 years at St. Francis on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston. 

The students are placed in small groups within each program, for example at Bon Secours the 12 students in the summer session were divided into two groups, each with its own supervisor. The Rev. Ben Breitkreuz is the other St. Francis supervisor along with Sister O’Donovan. The groups meet each morning to share their experiences and conversations with patients of which they keep a log as part of their daily homework.

In these learning sessions, the students vicariously experience many different situations. The sharing and reflection should lead each student to an understanding of how others receive them as ministers. They’ll come to know their own relational style, Sister O’Donovan explained, and understand how it can be modified to fit in ministry.

“It’s important to know about ourselves,” she said. “If we’re not aware of our own needs, they can get in the way.”

The chaplain interns help each other work through difficult situations they encounter. One student chaplain, Jeffrey Jones of the Church of God and Christ in St. Stephen, had concerns about working with mentally deficient patients, but he worked through his concerns with the help of his peer group at Bon Secours.

Many seminaries require their students to have at least one unit of CPE, but some students come seeking personal training. “Some come out of interest, but find they want to make it part of their life,” said the director.

The students are assigned a specific unit, such as behavior medicine, intensive care, or oncology, in which they work for the 11 weeks. But many have found that some of their most trying and most awesome experiences have come during their on-call work. Students take turns being on-call on weekends.

On one weekend Chris Liguori, a Catholic seminarian from St. Augustine, Fla., in the Bon Secours program, found joy in holding a newborn only a few hours old in the maternity ward. Robbie Robinson, a Catholic seminarian for the Diocese of Charleston, found a personal strength in ministering during a patient’s death.

“When on call, I’m prepared for anything, like patient death. I’m praying, and I’m reflecting. It’s almost peaceful because you’re helping people go home,” said the chaplain intern, who is working at Baptist Hospital in the Palmetto Health Alliance program in Columbia.

Will Austin, also a seminarian for the diocese in the Columbia program, used his on-call duties to attain his primary goal, which was to experience the dying process in long-term and short-term illness. His daily work was at a local hospice, and his on-call work at the hospital often led him to the trauma room. The seminarian explained that he has not had to deal with death on a personal level, but as a chaplain intern he experienced ministering to families and their dying relatives.

“The part that touched me the most was seeing people going through this and helping them discern the dying process,” he said.

By ministering in the hospice program, he got to build relationships with patients, which was an important part of his experience in CPE, but in his on-call duties he learned the importance of prayer for those whose loved ones are battling imminent death. “Some were just glad to know someone was there praying for their loved one as they were in surgery,” he said.

Some students have a unique story, like David Gichuru, a Methodist minister, in the Bon Secours program. Gichuru has been in the United States for three years from his native Kenya, where a program like CPE is not offered. In his eighth 11-week unit, he’s absorbing all the knowledge and experience he can. He plans to return to Kenya and form a group to share what he’s learned. His observation of CPE conjures an ominous image.

“It’s like a suicide bomber; you have to throw yourself in there and hope the bomb doesn’t go off. You can’t stand on the sidelines; you have to get in the action,” he said, “It’s a whole lot of me in there.”

While his ‘suicide bomber’ reference is harsh, his words emphasize the dynamism of the CPE program.

Bush said, “Every day I was amazed where the day led. People would stop me to talk or to sit with them, and I found that they always offered something new.”

The seminarian worked at the Lowman Home and the Bernardin Hospice. There, he faced his goals head-on. One goal he set for himself was to develop a deeper understanding of the mystery of death.

“I was asked by one family at hospice to be there when the patient died. There was about six hours of waiting in which we were expecting every breath to be the last. It was very difficult,” he said. “I left feeling tired, but that I had been in the right place.

“At the seminary we went over the stages of death, but here I’ve been walking with these people in the last days, and it’s not the end of life at all; it’s a transition into the next stage of it.”

It’s in working at places like hospice or a nursing care facility, where the joys and the sadness are closely entwined, that students see the circle of life.

“At the nursing home, you’ll be dealing with hospice and then celebrating a birthday,” said Jim Clements, an Episcopal seminarian in the Bon Secours program.

One aspect of the program that he has found particularly rewarding is gaining knowledge about his relationship with God and those around him.

Indeed one of the most amazing aspects of CPE is seeing the faith alive.

“Theological issues go away in the hospital; we’re all children of God when we’re sick,” said John Zimmerman, a Catholic seminarian, also in the Bon Secours program.

This is evidenced again and again in the religiously diverse chaplains who minister to patients of all different faiths.

David Albert, a chaplain intern at the Charleston hospital, is an Orthodox rabbi from South Africa. He is in his fifth unit and is completing a one-year residency. “I was nervous about ministering to non-Jewish patients, but I’ve been received very well,” he said. “I’m getting to know myself better and finding where my values stem from.”

He said that overcoming prejudices was a part of the program and that it helped develop a more diverse pastoral ministry, in that the students work with members of society that they typically do not have contact with, such as the elderly, indigent or those dealing with drug abuse. The Bon Secours program has contracts with the The Charleston Center, Ashley Crossing Nursing Home, the Our Lady of Mercy Outreach Center, and a local hospice organization. Students spend time within these organizations ministering as part of their CPE training.

The program involves overcoming stereotypes of different religions as well, which students say has enhanced their ecumenical sense.

Gichuru said, “When chaplains walk in the room and are openly accepting of the other, it diffuses the other on the spot and opens sharing.”

When asked why prejudices and religious differences seem to be negligible in the hospital setting, the students had a definite answer: the presence of God.

“Things are brought down to what’s real in life, in the pain and suffering,” said Becky Coerper, an Episcopal seminarian. “The things we think are important but aren’t are pushed aside.”

Feeling the presence of God each day has added an unexpected twist for some seminarians who have felt their vocational call strengthen during the program.

“I wasn’t expecting to be fine-tuning my vocational discernment,” said Bush. “I’ve been able to define more closely my sense of call to the priesthood.”

Many of the students have practiced putting aside their need to talk and have learned to focus on the patient, an important component to ministering.

“My number one goal was to listen more,” said Robinson.

“It’s a challenge to sit and listen and not talk; it’s our human nature to want to talk, but that’s not our ministry,” he said. “It’s a different sort of skill, and it takes training.”

And then it can be rewarding, as Susan Briner said, “when someone opens up to you and you can be there for them to process out loud and to share what they’re thinking and going through.” Briner is a Lutheran seminarian in the Bon Secours program.

Her Charleston peer, Sandra Kearse, of the Life Center of Charleston, said the joy’s in “knowing that the time you spent with a family made a difference to them, knowing that showing your true feelings and love affected their lives.”

There are difficult, heartbreaking circumstances that students encounter — a patient with AIDS who was rejected by family and friends, a family arguing over trivial matters while their loved one lies dying.

“You hope you planted a seed so they will act as Christians,” Austin said, “but you don’t know.”

There are also the joyous occasions of growth and seeing the faith alive and well in the CPE program that make it so important to the development of a pastoral minister. The challenges are numerous, but the rewards even more plentiful.

“Being with people is an amazing gift,” Bush said. “I’ve learned that the Holy Spirit will move in ways that I’ve never imagined.”