A week ago Thursday I graduated from Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). It was one of the hardest, but one of the best, things I have ever done and before I get cranked up fully for another semester of seminary, I would like to briefly reflect on my experiences as a hospital chaplain.
When I first started CPE back in June I wasn’t at all sure I had it in me to complete the course. After all, I hate hospitals and hate to see people suffering. I’m also the poster boy for medical student syndrome (the psychosomatic phenomenon that sometimes occurs in med students when they develop symptoms of a particular disease about which they are learning) and so it’s understatement when I tell you I dreaded taking CPE.
It was even worse once we got started. For example, the first time we had to role-play, I froze—didn’t know what to say or do in a moment of intense anxiety—something I had never done before in my life! As the course dragged on, I increasingly doubted my ability to minister to Christ’s sick, broken, and hurting people to the point where I despaired that I had mistaken my original call to ordained ministry. After all, if I could not be a pastoral presence, how could I ever be an effective minister?
At the end of June I asked Jesus during my morning devotions if I had been mistaken about his call to me. I wasn’t looking for a particular answer, I just wanted to know if I had been mistaken. I was equally prepared to hear a “yes” or a “no” and I didn’t have any particular way in mind the prayer should be answered, or when. I went to the hospital that day with a knot in my stomach—again—and proceeded to make my calls. During the course of the day, I visited two folks and had a remarkable and lengthy visit with both. For the first time, I realized I DID have the ability to be a pastoral presence to the sick. As I left work that day, I actually felt rejuvenated instead of feeling relieved to get the heck out of there. As I got in my car, I realized that Jesus had answered my prayer. He showed me that I could do pastoral work and in doing so, reaffirmed my call to ministry.
It was an awesome moment and I never looked back.
And so what have I learned? First, it is a privilege and joy to minister to Christ’s broken people. I’m not sure if I enjoy the work, but I do find joy in doing it. I know that sounds odd but it’s true.
Second, I learned to develop pastoral authority. It’s not fully developed, to be sure, but it has developed. I can be present with people without having the need to “fix” them. It’s an emptying of self of sorts and allowing Christ to be fully present with them through me. That’s an awesome privilege and responsibility and it drives me further to my knees in prayer in reliance on my Lord to help me do it right. It is an amazing thing to realize that I had to get out of the way and let Christ work in and through me before I could do the work. It is also quite humbling.
Third, my CPE experience was another tangible reminder of the reality of the Living Lord’s presence, both in my life and in the lives of his broken and sick people. I continue to be awe-struck that the God of this vast universe loves us so much that he is willing to get down in the trenches and be involved with his broken people on a daily, intimate basis.
That’s the God I know in Jesus and One whom I can really love and serve.
Last, I’ve discovered that I have pastoral gifts to the extent I did not realize and so I have asked my rector to get me involved in ministering to the sick in our parish. Accordingly, I will begin this week to take communion and do pastoral visits to some folks who have requested it. I am thankful for this wonderful opportunity and privilege to continue my pastoral work; in doing so, I hope not to lose these newly-developed pastoral skills.
In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how much I will miss my fellow CPE classmates—Mike, Paul, Ed, and Elaine. They were wonderful companions along the way and are truly my friends and brothers and sisters in Christ. It was an honor and privilege for me to get to know them and grow with them. As such, I was quite sad that our time together had to end, but as the old Preacher said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl 3:1) and now it is time to get my head back into my work at TESM.
I would also like to publicly thank my CPE supervisor, Rev. Hanci Newberry, at Mount Carmel West Hospital in Columbus, OH. If you are reading this reflection and have ever thought about ministering to the sick in a formal capacity, I would wholeheartedly recommend her program to you. She is the consummate teacher and professional—no small praise from an old curmudgeon like me—and I am thankful God led me to her program. She will love you, nurture you, and stretch you beyond your ability to imagine. She has also assembled a capable staff that was a joy to work with as well.
So what about you? Have you ministered to the sick and/or dying? Have you tried to comfort those who grieve? Have you found joy in doing Christ’s work without necessarily enjoying it? Does it make sense that to be a pastoral presence you have to lose yourself before you can be effective? Share with us your stories, thoughts, and/or fears so that we can learn from each other.