A Presbyterian, a Lutheran, and two Episcopalians walk into a hospital.
Not the start of a joke, I promise. Instead, it was the start of my summer working at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH, as a student intern in the Clinical Pastoral Education program.
Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is a highly recommended (often required) part of the ordination process in most presbyteries of the PC(USA). It is described by many presbyteries as a way to get soon-to-be teaching elders into the hospitals to demystify the experience and make it less frightening for those for whom it is unfamiliar. For some, this experience provides the first steps to a vocation in chaplaincy; for others, it makes the hospital less of an overwhelming wilderness as they prepare for traditional parish ministry, which will inevitably include visiting parishioners and community members in the hospital.
CPE is also an opportunity for the pastor-in-training to learn to prepare for and deal with crisis situations. It helps the participant develop their pastoral identity and capacity for ‘theology on the fly’ (my terminology, not official CPE lingo) that is essential to ministering to people in crisis. There are some enormous theological questions that only seem to emerge when lives begin, end, or dwell in a critical, chronic, or newly-diagnosed stage.
I am grateful that CPE helped me see my call as situated not only within my denominational church, but also within the wider Church.
The beginning of my own CPE experience was a whirlwind. On Saturday, I sat at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA, watching classmates graduate; Monday morning I arrived at my first day of work at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH. Tired, scared, and a little spatially disoriented, I stepped into the chaplains’ office. I was ushered into a conference room with five other people who all looked about as perplexed as I felt. Later we would recall wondering how we would survive this summer of sitting with people’s crises and, more frightening to me, our own emotional baggage that we brought to the table.
I am happy to report that we all survived that first day. In fact, we all survived the whole summer together at the hospital. Not only did we survive, but as we worked together on case studies, intergroup dynamics, and book talks, I believe that sharing that space allowed us all to grow. I accredit a good bit of that growth to the diversity present in our group, particularly our differing denominational backgrounds. With the common strands of Christian faith formation as a safety net around us, our differences provided opportunities to ask risky questions and take time to wrestle with truths that our own respective traditions had taught us to take for granted.
When I set out to write this article, I intended to tell you all about what I learned. But when I sat down to tell our story, one of those very things I learned in the collaborative and ecumenical context of CPE stopped me: It would be inauthentic to write this article by myself. To sit here and tell you the ways I grew from the different theological and pastoral perspectives of my classmates wouldn’t give you the whole picture. It would be like giving you one small piece of colorful glass and asking you to imagine what the stained glass window looks like. So, I sent a few questions around to my CPE colleagues, asking for their perceptions of how the ecumenical diversity affected their CPE experience. Not surprisingly, there were some common themes in the way we were all affected by the ecumenical and interfaith diversity in CPE.
With the common strands of Christian faith formation as a safety net around us, our differences provided opportunities to ask risky questions and take time to wrestle with truths that our own respective traditions had taught us to take for granted.
To get started, let me introduce you to my friends, whose voices will help me explain our summer:
Erica Partridge had just completed her first year in Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Masters of Theological Studies program; she is now completing her final year there. Shawn Dickerson had just graduated with an MDiv from Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary; he is now a priest in Boardman, OH. Robert Hill was just completing his second year in the MDiv program at Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary; he will soon be ordained and is currently gaining valuable experience in suburban parish administration and youth ministry. I had just finished with my second year of the MDiv program at Union Presbyterian Seminary; I have since graduated and started a Masters of Marriage and Family Therapy at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
One of the major advantages of the ecumenical setting is the opportunity to have honest conversations with each other and with our patients. Shawn writes, “At some point during the summer, each CPE student struggled to reconcile faith, church teaching, and life’s unfolding events. The ecumenical experience gave me a small peek into the variety of ways our faiths influence our understanding of and response to life.”
Each member of our cohort was born into the religious traditions in which we still find ourselves today. Our ecumenical experience with one another and with the diverse staff chaplains and patients offered us chances to ask questions about traditions so deeply embedded into our own faith development that we wouldn’t have otherwise thought to examine them. We can all point to ways in which CPE challenged our understandings of our respective denominations, our denominational resources, and how our theologies really work in the face of life, death, illness, and healing.
Robert writes, “I knew I’d be stretched by interacting with Muslim and Jewish patients, but oddly enough it was in interactions with other Christian traditions that I grew the most.”
We began to see more clearly both the ways that our traditions could be helpful in times of crisis and ways they posed stumbling blocks. Shawn names this point, “I saw how at times particular understandings of faith and church teachings could present major roadblocks and even crises of faith to patients, their families, and/or the chaplain. I also witnessed chaplains utilizing and applying their own faith so that the chaplain could be a companion to folks while they were in the hospital and even lay groundwork for healing, growth, and a deepening of faith.”
Robert writes about the lessons he learned about doing ministry with people of different faith traditions: “I knew I’d be stretched by interacting with Muslim and Jewish patients, but oddly enough it was in interactions with other Christian traditions that I grew the most, including everything from fundamentalist Christians to Mormons to Amish. In my interactions with patients and other chaplains. I gained a new appreciation of the African-American religious traditions in particular and for the commonalities of experience and expression that span religious traditions.”
Perhaps the most common theme of our reflections on our summer of CPE, is how this ecumenical work has shaped own sense of faith and vocation. Working with people from different backgrounds has affected our own understanding of what we believe and has refined our views of the church’s role in the world. Erica writes, “My experience was enhanced because it helped me to be open to other viewpoints and beliefs of people not from a Lutheran background. I enjoyed talking to and spending time with people of different faith backgrounds because it helped me to grow in my faith and to gain a greater appreciation and love for those of a different denomination or religion.”
We began to see more clearly both the ways that our traditions could be helpful in times of crisis and ways they posed stumbling blocks.
Robert adds, “In my interactions with chaplains and staff from other faith perspectives, I learned how the church fills different social needs around the world. In some less wealthy parts of the world, the church is where people turn to meet social needs that in U.S. society are taken care of by the state. I’ve taken this into my ministry outside the hospital whenever someone from a foreign culture comes to church asking for financial assistance. I now realize that many of them may not know of the services offered in this area, and I am better able to help by directing them to resources in the wider community.”
Shawn notes, “I saw new aspects of the church which offered rich and vibrant ways to understand God present and active in the world. This helped me better appreciate the effectiveness and integrity of a variety of traditions and their ability to bring various peoples into closer relationship with God.”
For me personally, the summer I spent in CPE turned out to be a vital part of my seminary education and the formation of my pastoral identity. The friendships I made have continued to provide a network of support and a wealth of knowledge to which I can turn as I navigate my call, my education, and my relationship God and with the Church. I am grateful that CPE helped me see my call as situated not only within my denominational church, but also within the wider Church.
I believe that ecumenism offers so many opportunities for collaboration and community. I cannot wait to see what each of my friends does in their churches and communities, and I am grateful that I am going forth into my own ministry with their support, knowing that I can always come to them for a fresh perspective.
AUTHOR BIO: Since finishing CPE, Beth graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in May 2015 with her MDiv. She is now a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary getting a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy. She also serves part time as Field Staff for Presbyterian College Women and Young Women’s Ministries.