Re-doing CPE: Back to the beginning

Post Author: Ali Van Kuiken

I live on the East Coast, and when I was in seminary looking for a CPE program with last-minute availability I found a spot at a nearby hospital. It was accredited by the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP). This organization’s CPE requirements were good enough for my ordaining body, and at the time, I honestly didn’t know the difference between the major CPE organizations. As I learned more about CPSP, I came to really believe in their stated values and mission. I wanted to be part of them. I did a residency and became board certified. I was an active member of the organization.

 Then, several years later, due to a variety of factors, I found myself quite far from the organization I once loved. It no longer aligned with my values, I no longer found them supportive, and as I set my sights on becoming a CPE supervisor myself, I decided I did not want to propagate their brand of chaplaincy. So I made the choice to re-do my CPE with the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE).

I am very fortunate to have found an online  CPE program accredited by the ACPE that allows me to do my clinical hours at the psychiatric hospital where I work as a chaplain. I’m lucky, too, that my Bishop fully supports me. Yet it has not been easy to jump back into the waters of CPE as an experienced, board certified chaplain, who has also supervised chaplain interns myself. My first unit was a struggle. I wasn’t sure how to be part of the peer group. I felt distant. I felt resentful of the third and fourth unit students who were “ahead of” me– even though I had more experience. 

However, the expectation of vulnerability and full engagement with the clinical process was not a struggle for me. I had spent a year and a half in the CPSP’s Supervisor-in-Training (SIT) program and was used to bearing my soul to people I barely knew and submitting myself to their feedback. Occasionally I found myself resistant, but I have become very accustomed to this clinical process. Being open and vulnerable, and reflecting aloud with others has been something that both CPSP and ACPE share. 

A decorative image of an open blank journal with a pencil laid over it, against a white background

Returning to the beginning offers opportunity to look at your work afresh.

During my recent first ACPE unit, I completed an assignment where I was tasked with  telling a personal story. I decided to tell the story of getting my black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I had started in Tae Kwon Do when I was 11 and earned my black belt at 16. In the assignment, I reported that I had commented to my mom that getting my black belt didn’t feel like I had mastered the art, but that I rather now knew all the basics and was ready to really begin learning. One of my peers commented that this might be a helpful lens through which I could look at my re-doing of CPE. I didn’t feel very favorable toward her at the time, but now that I am in my third ACPE unit of four,  I am able to see the opportunities for growth available to me given the knowledge I have already gained. 

I am not overwhelmed at the prospect of giving pastoral care as I was during my first go-round. This allows me to craft goals with nuance. With my years of chaplaincy experience, I have also pushed myself many times in regard to pastoral care, so I can draw on that as I face new challenges like honing my ability to give staff support. And I can work on goals that would help me in the future as a CPE educator, such as working on how I give feedback to my peers during the mid-unit and final evaluations. There is also a way in which doing this reflective work while working professionally that allows me to choose goals that truly matter to me. I am doing the work every week; this is my job. The learning doesn’t end when the CPE unit ends. I genuinely want to be a better chaplain, to understand my current setting’s  organization’s structure and inner workings, and to learn new pastoral care skills. 

I’m discovering that I have, at times, become complacent in my work as a chaplain. I have my habits, my standard questions and responses. Presenting verbatims to my peers allows me to scrutinize these tried and true methods to examine whether or not they are actually true. Sometimes we grow too comfortable in the way we work and we miss out on opportunities for creativity or to allow the Holy Spirit to move. As humiliating as it initially felt for me, re-doing CPE is proving to be a beneficial (if onerous) exercise, one in which I can find opportunities for growth and new levels of self-awareness. There is some benefit after all to returning to the beginning.

The Rev. Ali Van Kuiken is a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in central New Jersey where she lives with her husband, toddler, and cat.

Image by: Dom J from Pexels
Used with permission
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