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What is Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), and how does it work?


A group of CPE students outside studying for their final evaluation
CPE students studying outside

Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is a professional education program that focuses on the development of individuals as spiritual caregivers. CPE programs are typically offered in healthcare settings, such as hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes. They are designed to give students the skills and knowledge they need to become effective spiritual caregivers.


CPE programs are open to individuals from all faith traditions or no tradition. Students are encouraged to explore their beliefs and values as part of the learning process. The programs use a cohort model, where students meet regularly with a small group of peers to share experiences and provide mutual support.


The primary goal of CPE is to enhance the personal and professional development of the student as a spiritual caregiver. The program is designed to provide students with opportunities for self-reflection and self-awareness and to develop pastoral skills such as active listening, empathetic communication, and ethical decision-making. CPE programs involve supervised clinical work with patients and families and regular group and individual supervision with a certified supervisor.


CPE programs are typically offered in three levels: Level I, Level II, and Supervisory Education. Level I CPE is an introduction to spiritual care and provides students with the foundational skills needed to begin clinical work. Level II CPE is a more advanced program that builds on the skills learned in Level I and includes more in-depth clinical work. Supervisory Education is for individuals who have completed Level II and are interested in becoming certified CPE supervisors themselves.


In this article, we will explore the history and purpose of CPE, the different levels of CPE programs, the curriculum and structure of CPE, the benefits of completing a CPE program, and the job opportunities available for those who complete a CPE program.


The History and Purpose of Clinical Pastoral Education


The roots of CPE can be traced back to the early 20th century in Massachusetts. The Rev. Anton T. Boisen, a Presbyterian minister who had experienced a mental breakdown and sought to integrate his own experiences into his ministry, established the first CPE program in 1925 at Worcester State Hospital. Boisen believed that the traditional seminary model of education did not adequately prepare Christian clergy for the challenges they would face in providing pastoral care to people in crisis. He developed a new model of education that combined academic study with clinical experience, which became the foundation of the CPE program. (For an excellent history of CPE, check out the book Trust the Process by the Rev. Stephen King.)


The purpose of CPE is to provide individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to provide effective spiritual care in various settings, including healthcare, military, and corrections. The program is designed to be an experiential learning process that allows students to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs while learning from their peers and supervisors.


Levels of Clinical Pastoral Education Programs


CPE programs are typically offered in three levels: Level I, Level II, and Supervisory Education.



Level I and II CPE involve 300 hours of supervised clinical work with patients and families and 100 hours of group and individual supervision with a certified supervisor.


Level I CPE is an introduction to spiritual care designed for individuals new to the field. The program provides students with the foundational skills for effective clinical work, such as active listening, empathetic communication, and ethical decision-making.


Level II CPE is a more advanced program that builds on the skills learned in Level I and includes more in-depth clinical work, self-reflection, and study. Level II CPE is designed for individuals interested in further developing their spiritual care skills and who have already completed Level I CPE.


Supervisory Education is for individuals who have completed Level II and are interested in becoming certified CPE supervisors. The program is designed to provide individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to supervise CPE students. Supervisory Education typically takes three to five years to complete. It involves supervised clinical and educational work and regular group and individual supervision with a certified supervisor.


The Curriculum and Structure of Clinical Pastoral Education


The curriculum of CPE programs is designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to provide effective spiritual care. The curriculum typically includes topics such as:

  • Theology and spiritual care

  • Communication skills

  • Ethics and decision-making

  • Self-awareness and self-reflection

  • Cultural humility and diversity

  • Crisis intervention

  • Grief and loss

  • Death and dying

  • The Role of the Chaplain

CPE programs typically involve both classroom learning and supervised clinical work with patients and families. Supervised clinical work allows students to apply the skills they have learned in the classroom in a real-world setting. The clinical work is typically supervised by a certified CPE supervisor, who provides regular feedback and support to the student.


In addition to the supervised clinical work, CPE programs include regular group and individual supervision with a certified supervisor. These supervision sessions allow students to reflect on their clinical experiences, receive feedback on their spiritual care skills, and explore the personal and professional issues that arise in their work as spiritual caregivers. (For a helpful book on how to get the most out of CPE, check out the book How to Get the Most Out of CPE by Gordon J. Hilsman.)


The Benefits of Completing a Clinical Pastoral Education Program


Completing a CPE program can provide numerous benefits for individuals interested in spiritual care in healthcare settings. Some of the benefits include:


Development of spiritual care skills


CPE programs provide individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to provide effective spiritual care to people in healthcare settings. These skills include active listening, empathetic communication, and ethical decision-making, among others.


Personal and professional growth


CPE programs are designed to be an experiential learning process that allows students to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs while learning from their peers and mentors. This process can lead to personal and professional growth and development.


Credentialing


Completing four units of CPE is often a requirement for individuals who want to become certified chaplains or pursue other careers in spiritual care.

Job Opportunities for Clinical Pastoral Education Graduates

Various job opportunities are available for individuals who complete a CPE program. Some of the available jobs include:


Chaplain


A chaplain is a trained spiritual caregiver who provides emotional and spiritual support to patients, families, and staff in healthcare settings. Chaplains work in various settings.

Spiritual Care Coordinator/Manager/Director


A spiritual care coordinator oversees spiritual care programs, often in healthcare. This may include developing policies and procedures, training staff, and working with patients and families to provide spiritual support.


Conclusion


Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is a professional education program designed to provide individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to provide effective spiritual care in various settings. CPE programs are offered in a cohort model, where students meet regularly with a certified supervisor and engage in supervised clinical work. CPE programs typically include topics such as theology, communication skills, ethics, cultural humility, crisis intervention, grief and loss, and the chaplain's role.


Completing a CPE program can provide numerous benefits for individuals interested in spiritual care. Some of these benefits include the development of spiritual care skills, personal and professional growth, credentialing, and job opportunities.

Various job opportunities are available for individuals who complete a CPE program, including a chaplain and spiritual care coordinator. These roles allow individuals to provide emotional and spiritual support to patients, families, and staff and to oversee spiritual care programs for individuals and families in crisis.


In conclusion, CPE is a valuable program for individuals interested in providing spiritual care in healthcare settings. The program offers individuals the skills and knowledge they need to provide effective spiritual care and personal and professional growth opportunities. Completing a CPE program can also open up job opportunities in healthcare settings and allow individuals to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.

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