I was in college when I first heard of Clinical Pastoral Education. I was attending Congress 83 of the Evangelistic Association of New England, and went to a workshop by Eleftheria Sidiropoulou of Tremont Temple Baptist Church where she talked about it. I heard more from my pastoral counseling professor at Atlantic Union College, Tim Berry. In 1985 I began study at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, where CPE was required. Instead of doing it my first summer, like most of my peers, I did it in the fall of 1986. I had joined the Army Reserve as a Chaplain Candidate in March 1986, and did the Chaplain Officer Basic Course that summer at Fort Monmouth, NJ, that summer, so I was able to do a unit of CPE on active duty at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I was 24, and a Second Lieutenant, new to the Army and still in seminary. My classmates included several senior Captains, two women married to Colonels, and CH (MAJ-P) Paul W. Dodd, with whom I shared an office. The supervisor was CH (COL) Carl Kahrs Towley (he pinned his eagles on during our unit). I was assigned to Urology, Orthopedics, and Neurosurgery/Neurology.
What an experience. I was scared. I felt like I was in over my head. The cases I worked on would have been challenging for an experienced chaplain. I was grateful for Carl–a fellow Lutheran. At one point when I was voicing my inadequacies he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and asked, “Do you or do you not believe Luther’s explanation of the third article of the creed?” I hesitated, so he recited the words he had memorized as child:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.Martin Luther, Small Catechism
That experience–and that quote–were foundational to my future ministry. Come December, though, I was glad to be done with it. I thought that was it for me. I never considered another unit of CPE … until Jim Duke planted a seed. A retired Army chaplain, he became the CPE educator at Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. He suggested I do an extended unit. My boss at the time, Paul Anderson, thought it a great idea.
So in January 2022, I was back as a CPE student. Over the next twelve months I completed two extended units of CPE (ACPE)–yesterday was our group final evaluation.
Where I had once been the junior kid on the block, now I was one of the old guys, with most of my fellow students the ages of my kids. Jim said, “You will be tempted to get into a teacher role, and there could be some benefit to that–but you will also have to show yourself vulnerable, and a peer.” That was tough. I was in an odd position–I had been in chaplaincy over 30 years–20 of them as an Army chaplain. I had been working for eight years as Assistant Director of a chaplain endorsing agency. I went to ACPE, CPSP, and APC national meetings in that role. I was working on a Master of Public Health degree, and I was going to research conferences.
CPE became for me an opportunity to revisit clinical chaplaincy, and to integrate into my clinical practice my many experiences, my identity as a chaplain and a veteran, and the research I was studying. I began to write my verbatims including references to relevant research. I read books on charting spiritual care to improve my own charting. I was able to do didactics on moral injury and suicide prevention. And I was able to share my vulnerabilities, and my frustrations, my failings and my anger.
I get a month-long break, and will start up again, now on unit number four. That will be sufficient for me to apply for Board Certification, and to get a full time job in clinical chaplaincy. Look forward to more reflections in the future.