So, I’ve been quiet here for a bit. I’ve not been missing, I’ve just been in the throes of Clinical Pastoral Education, also known as CPE. For those not on a seminary path, CPE is the time when one participates in a very intense program of study. For me, it was over the summer and is known as the summer intensive. Apparently, thanks to Meadville, I love doing intensive programs. Anyway, this was 11 weeks of classes, clinical rotations, tears, joys, pain, and great internal work, all in an accredited hospital setting. I had classes every Monday (all day long), and then worked in a hospital setting visiting patients as a chaplain Tuesday through Thursday (Thursday was my regular overnight shift, so I was off on Fridays after 8am).
It was hard work. In the beginning I felt like an imposter (oh, that Imposter Syndrome is often hard to shake). My “professional” clothes didn’t fit right, both emotionally and physically. I struggled to find the right words to say to patients. I barely spoke to staff. I fought tears on a regular basis. I learned where every bathroom was near my two units and where the “quieter” ones were (those off the beaten path where I could cry without fear of someone coming in).
I prayed more than I have in a long time. Not just out loud with and for patients, but also sitting in the chapel every morning before I started, scared out of my mind about what I would face in the beginning. Later, my own prayers were shorter, more directed: “Dear God, please help me to be where I need to be to help those I need to help.” Some days I just sat in the chapel and cried. Other days I sat there and simply said “Thank you.”
About midway through the unit, something shifted in me. It was subtle, but powerful. Suddenly I realized that I was a minister. I wasn’t just an intern, I wasn’t just a student. I was the minister to my two units. Not just to the patients, but also to the staff. They were my congregations. When that shift happened, I found myself walking into rooms with more confidence, more ease, and I was able to really interact with the staff.
And then, just as quickly as it started, we were done. It was suddenly that last week and I was formulating my goodbyes. I had to say goodbye to staff who had become dear to me. I had to say goodbye to patients. Granted, most of the summer was about saying goodbye to patients, as we’re unable to follow up with them after they leave (something that helped me discern that I’d much rather be a parish minister than a chaplain). But this time, on the last day, I really felt the pain. I finally figured out that it was a bit of guilt mixed in with the sadness,. Guilt because I felt I was abandoning my patients who would still be there after I left. I knew I was leaving them in capable hands, but it was still difficult.
I feel different than when I started. I feel much more in control of my ministerial identity and authority. Next week I go to Chicago to start the next semester with convocation. In three weeks I begin my two year journey as a student minister. CPE definitely helped me prepare for that.
So, my advice for those who have CPE ahead of them:
- Be open to the process. It will be tough. The purpose is to go in and dig out the “stuff” deep down and put it where you can see it and deal with it. You may have already gone through therapy. If so, fantastic, you will have an easier time accessing your feelings. There will still be stuff you thought you dealt with.
- Take your time. I was given the fantastic advice to use my time “foaming up” or “gelling” (using the hand sanitizers outside of patient rooms) to center and say a prayer. The times I remembered to do that, the visits went so much better.
- Be gentle with yourself. This is a time of great change and hard work. It is emotionally draining. For some of us it is physically draining. Don’t do anything else that will tax you during this time. Especially if it’s a summer unit. During mine I went to one party and a couple of fun activities that I’ve been doing for years. They helped me stay grounded and gave me an outlet to relax. Other than that, I did a lot of sleeping and a lot of watching TV. Probably not the best self-care, but it worked for me.
- Dig into your theology. I was the only Unitarian Universalist in my entire cohort. This made things a bit rough at times in my smaller group. But, I was able to really define my own theology, answer questions about UU, and speak up for the other faith traditions (or no faith traditions) that we would encounter in the hospital setting.
- Cry when you need to. As I often told patients and families, tears are a part of us. They are an outward manifestation of our love, our grief, and our pain. Holding them in does no good. I cried a lot during CPE. I cried in bathroom stalls, I cried in class, I cried in the office, and I cried in the chapel. I also cried in front of patients and their families. I cried as I prayed at times. I’m not ashamed of my tears.
- Remember your units become your parish. You are not just ministering to the patients and their families. You are also ministering to the staff, and these are the people you’ll see every day. They have hard jobs and need to hear a reassuring word from time to time. I had some fantastic interactions with staff members where I really got to minister to them one on one. Check in on everyone: nurses, doctors, techs, food services and the housekeeping staff.
- Create regular rituals for yourself. For me, this meant having consistent rituals while at the hospital and when I left. I started coming early to eat lunch (we had meal vouchers), then print my patient lists, and then go to the chapel. On my overnight shifts, I started what was known as the “shushy ritual”. I walked the hospital near the end of my “on duty” time and before I went to the sleep room, and at every unit I prayed, “everyone sleeps tonight, everyone stays alive, the chaplain can talk to you in the morning, shhhhhh”. I would then go sit outside in the meditation garden and decompress before going to the sleep room. My on call phone stayed silent all night. In the morning when I left, I would call my mom and talk on the way home (this helped me stay awake for the drive). When I worked a Saturday overnight, my family and I would go to breakfast when I got home and changed. When I was in the sleep room, I spent the first half hour soaking my feet in epsom salts and listening to podcasts. Because chaplaincy is so chaotic at times, these regular rituals helped me stay calm.
- Make sure you have a spiritual practice. This is always something I have struggled with. During CPE, I found I was praying a lot more than I had before. So that helped. I also found smaller things that became like a spiritual practice. One for me was doing origami. There was something satisfying in concentrating on those precise folds that calmed me. I also colored in a mandala coloring book. Those may not work for you and that’s okay. Find what does and do that. Once I got a bit more regular about my spiritual practices, things seemed to be a bit easier.
- Find people you can talk to about what you’re going through. Most people aren’t going to understand. And you have to be careful about what you share because of HIPAA rules. I was lucky that there was a Facebook group for UU’s in CPE. It gave us a place to talk about the theological issues that come up, especially when you’re in a faith-based hospital setting. I talked to my husband a lot, who was fine with only getting sparse details as to why I was so sad or frustrated or whatever. I became pretty good friends with a couple of my cohort members and that helped because these were people who were in the same program as me and were going through the same schedules and such.
- Keep a journal. It doesn’t have to be detailed and it doesn’t have to be fancy. I kept a journal in a composition notebook. I often journaled before I went into my shift and again at the end. This came in handy each week as I had to write a weekly reflection. I was also able to keep track of my patient counts for later paperwork right there on the journal page. The benefit now? I can see my growth as it happened.
I’m so thankful for the CPE journey. I am ready now for the next steps in the greater journey to become a minister.