Adventures in The Chaplaincy: Clinical Pastoral Education

I came to the realization today that it has been right at a year since I received word that I was selected by the Army to attend CPE. It was the culmination of two years worth of conversations and about four months worth of preparing my official file for the board. I had asked for and actively sought CPE so it was very exciting to get the email and phone call notification that I’d been selected.

That started my family and I on a journey that led to a PCS from Fort Stewart in May and now I’ve just completed the first of four units of CPE. We did our unit one final evaluation at the Historic Christ Church in Alexandria, VA last week. This first unit has been among the most helpful experiences I’ve ever had in ministry. I heard a lot of things about CPE in the lead-up to starting the program. Things like, “Oh, that’s just a bunch of navel gazing” or “It’s just liberal nonsense” or “I’m glad it’s you and not me.” But the voice that rang out loudest for me was that of my first Division Chaplain at the Third Infantry Division. He called CPE, “Ranger school for Chaplains.”

Well, I can say that the last couple months have been among the best I’ve had in ministry. CPE provides the opportunity for truly intensive mentoring and critique. Both from peers and from the supervisor. If you embrace the process, you open up your ministry practices for others to look at them under a microscope. It’s a bit scary at times and very humbling. But the great thing about CPE and working in the clinical hospital environment is that you are immediately able to take that mentoring and critique and put it into practice. I might give a verbatim, hear feedback from my peers and supervisor, and an hour later be on the floors doing patient visits. I can immediately take what I’ve learned and apply it.

There is nothing quite like CPE in terms of Army schools that is so focused on honing pastoral skills and that is a very positive thing as many Army schools for Chaplains are focused less on ministerial skills and more on operational skills. Both types of training are good and necessary for success as an Army Chaplain but CPE is unique in the amount of focus it puts on enhancing pastoral skills and caring for people in traumatic situations.

Some of you reading this might be thinking about pursuing CPE in the Army or maybe you were just selected to attend of the schools. I have a few bits of advice for you:

  1. Embrace the process. You will get out of CPE what you put into it. If you are cynical about it your benefits will be minimal. If you go into it willing to learn and grow, you will indeed learn and grow.
  2. Two of the three current Army CPE sites (Walter Reed and Fort Lewis) are in high cost of living areas. It takes time for paperwork to get processed and BAH and DLA to catch up with you. SAVE MONEY! Plan to have $4-5,000 set aside to help get you through the first 4-6 weeks. This is especially true if you live off-post and have to pay security deposits and first month rent. That will cause you to run through your savings in a hurry. And then you might have to pay the next months rent still drawing BAH from what is probably a lower cost of living area.
  3. Prepare your family. CPE will not require you to be in the field or do a CTC rotation. That said, you will pull 24 hour shifts at the hospital with regularity. You also might find engaging in group time to be a drain on your emotional well because you have to be so engaged with your peers. So don’t be surprised if you come home needing a few minutes to recharge before you engage with your family. Also, you will encounter many hurting people at the hospital who will pull from your emotional and spiritual reserves. Be thinking of things that recharge those batteries and be prepared to do some self-care while at CPE.

I’m looking forward to the next three units of CPE and then seeing where the Army sends us from there. Do you have any CPE experiences? If so, feel free to share in the comments!

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