Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is professional training in pastoral care, geared to the healthcare setting. CPE is provided through teaching hospitals—sites accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE)—at locations across the United States.
Many seminaries and denominations require one unit of CPE in order to graduate with a master of divinity degree. (Unity Institute and Seminary does not.) Graduating from a year-long residency, which confers 4 certified units of CPE, is considered the professional level of training for a healthcare chaplain.
I was accepted into the residency program in the fall of 2004 at the Seton Hospital Network in Austin, Texas. The application process is extensive, covering education and work history, as well as essays on beliefs, your religious history, and spiritual outlook. Then there is an interview with a panel of professional chaplains and CPE educators.
Application and admission requirements, as well as a listing of ACPE-accredited teaching hospital programs, are available at acpe.edu. If the chaplain field is attractive to you, it’s worth exploring. Even though many CPE residents have an M.Div. when they apply, or are in seminary, that’s not always the case. I had a non-traditional educational background, and was still accepted into the program. Chances of acceptance depend in part on how many applications a given CPE program gets in a given year for their slots.
Most people who do CPE go for just the one unit. Students looking for one unit have two options at most sites: a summer internship, and an extended unit. Summer internships are what they sound like—a three-month term geared to be completed between a spring and fall college semester.
The extended unit, which is an option most attractive to a working licensed Unity teacher (LUT) or minister, is geared to the working person. Class time and patient-care time is provided in weekly sessions that are completed in a six-month period. Just in Austin, we have had three Unity students do the one year residency, and one who did the extended unit.
So, what is it like? CPE brings the student into the experience of ministering to patients and families who are in crisis. These crisis experiences range from sitting with and talking to patients during a brief, non-emergency hospital stay, to providing compassionate support to the family of a patient who has died suddenly in the emergency room.
CPE students, through such encounters, are confronted with their own fears, discomforts, and questions about life and death. A big part of the class time in CPE is discussing and assimilating, with instructors and other students, the insights which spring from this direct patient care.
The student goes through the CPE unit with a cohort of seven or eight other students and their CPE supervisor/instructor. It is in this crucible that tremendous growth and change occur. A deep level of expanded capacity of heart and understanding takes place. It is challenging, fearsome, rewarding, humbling, and uplifting. And I can’t imagine anything that would help a minister or LUT improve their pastoral ministry more than at least one unit of CPE.
Association for Professional Chaplains (APC)
Note: APC has stringent educational prerequisites for membership, including an M.Div., 4 Units of CPE, extensive writing examples, and stages of application and interview. I work in a hospice which does not require APC membership/board certification of its chaplains, but virtually all hospitals do require APC certification.