When deciding which CPE program to apply to, there are several questions you should keep in mind. Think of them as the ABCs of choosing a CPE program: accreditation, best fit, and cost.
1. Is it an accredited program?
There are several accrediting bodies for Clinical Pastoral Education programs in the U.S. I am certified by the ACPE: The Standard for Spiritual Care and Education and oversee a CPE program accredited by that organization, so I recommend you look for ACPE-accredited programs. The accreditation of your CPE program will matter down the road if/when you pursue board certification as a chaplain. The Association of Professional Chaplain (APC) only accepts one unit of CPE that is NOT accredited by the ACPE (a minimum of four units is a prerequisite for certification). I've received phone calls from countless individuals over the years from people who have complete four units of CPE that were accredited by other organizations. They called to see if they could do their CPE over again to be eligible for certification with the APC.
2. Is it the best fit for me?
Finding a good fit is essential. To do so, keep in mind that there are basically three elements to every CPE program that will determine the kind of experience you have. And you only have control over two of those in the beginning.
The site (context for ministry)
You want to be mindful of the site or the context. Most CPE takes place in a health care setting, although there are programs where the site is a congregation, a social services agency, or something else. But since most are in health care it is a good idea to think about what kind of health care environment you would most want to spend 300 hours providing spiritual care. I did my first unit of CPE and my CPE residency in academic medical institutions that are Level 1 Trauma Centers. That means the site was intense - helicopters flying in to transport trauma patients who had gunshot wounds, motor vehicle accidents, and so on. Tragic for sure, but also exhilarating. I was terrified and excited all at once. Some of you may not want that kind of intensity... and that is okay. You may prefer a 100-bed community hospital in a rural area. I've also worked at one of those, and it was the most intense experience of community that I have experienced in health care and CPE. In any case, I believe students can learn in any environment.
Here is what I suggest: if you get an interview (and not everyone does) and it is in-person (and not all are these days thanks to the pandemic), pay attention to how you feel as you walk in the door. What do you feel? Excited? Bored? Somewhere in between? How is the energy of the place? What is the vibe? What you feel is good information to help you determine if it may be the place for you. Of course, you can also ask whoever interviews you about the context. Ask them what they like and dislike about the site. See how that syncs up or doesn't with your experience of the site.
The supervisor (educator)
The supervisor (now called "certified educator") plays a significant role, maybe even the largest, in creating the CPE experience. Research shows that a substantial factor contributing to successful clinical supervision programs is what's called the supervisory working alliance. It is defined as "...agreement on the goals of supervision, mutual clarity about the tasks of supervision, and the bond between the supervisor and supervise" (Bordin, 1983).
Watkins (2018), in his review of the literature on the supervisory working alliance, wrote:
"A strong or favorably rated supervisory alliance was found to be linked to such variables as: higher supervisee self-efficacy and well-being, greater willingness to self-disclose during supervision, more satisfaction with supervision, more job satisfaction, greater perceived effectiveness of supervision, more availability of coping resources, secure attachment style, more supportively-perceived gender events during supervision, an attractive, interpersonally sensitive supervisor style, higher interactional complementarity between supervisee and supervisor, higher supervisee and supervisor racial identity statuses, more discussions of culture in supervision, more favorable perceptions of supervisor ethical behaviors, greater supervisor relational ability, and more frequent yet appropriate supervisor self-disclosures. A weak or unfavorably rated supervisory alliance was found to be related to such variables as: Supervisee avoidant attachment style, higher degree of perceived stress, more exhaustion and burnout, greater amount of role conflict and role ambiguity, and more frequently perceived occurrences of negative supervision events. While some support for all measured dimensions of the supervisory alliance was found...the Bond and Rapport elements emerged most strongly and consistently across studies."
So pay attention to how you feel as you interact with the educator. Is this someone with whom you feel you can connect and build rapport? Is this someone with whom you believe you can learn? The educator will support and challenge you in the context of the relationship that you develop together. To be sure, it is challenging to know if the relationship will work out or not when you first meet. If you don't have a good feeling about things, then this is the time to find another program.
The students (peer group)
This third element is the one you have very little to no control over. The peer group is usually assembled by the educator(s) while you and other applicants are interviewing. You may be the first one accepted. You could also be the last. We don't generally provide much information about the peer group, but you are welcome to ask. The peer group is a vital component of any CPE program. In fact, you will spend the majority of your educational time learning from and with your peers. They will provide feedback to you throughout the CPE journey, and you will also give them input. Some group theories say the power to really effect change in a person or system is in the group, not just the leader. Keep that in mind.
You should collect as much information as possible about all three of these elements to help you decide if the CPE program to which you applied is the best fit for you.
3. How much does it cost?
Another critical factor is the cost of the CPE program. Application fees can range from $0 to $100 and are generally non-refundable. Tuition ranges from a few hundred dollars all the way up to $3000 (online programs tend to charge the most). To give you a point of reference, the program I oversee in NYC charges $1000 for tuition. Some CPE programs provide stipends to summer or extended students (my program is not one of them). Yearlong residencies almost always offer a salary and benefits. The program I oversee offers $45,000 per year plus benefits.
You should ask yourself if you can afford to pay these amounts. If not, sometimes CPE programs will discount your tuition or offer a scholarship, but these are not always advertised. So be sure to ask.
Some argue that CPE is too expensive. And for some, that is true. However, if you compare CPE to almost any seminary's tuition rate, it is a bargain. Some schools charge $1000 per credit hour and offer far less instruction time than a CPE program. But I think that is a topic for another post.