CPE and the Seminary Professor


I spent the majority of this summer working as a chaplain intern in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Seton Medical Center Austin. This was an unusual departure from my typical summers, which involve catching up on writing projects, researching, preparing for the new academic year, and vacation time with my family. None of those were in the offing this summer. Instead, as part of my ordination process I worked on the oncology and intermediate care floors. True to its purpose, this CPE program provided me with opportunities to minister, to reflect, to learn, and to grow.

I was also in an unusual situation. While the rest of my cohort, save one, were seminary students, I was a seminary professor. On top of that, about a third of the group were current students at my school. For the sake of my own learning and growth, I bracketed my role as professor in the context of CPE. At the same time, since I am pursuing ordination while remaining in a seminary community, I often reflected on how CPE was informing my understanding of my dual vocation of professor and priest.

I had many important experiences during CPE. I gained greater confidence in my role as a pastoral caregiver. I learned how to be present in the face of physical, emotional, and mental suffering. I thought a lot about family systems and their effects on all facets of one’s life, including health. As a former evangelical and a devoted Episcopalian, I dove into praying extemporaneously and learned a great deal about the nature of prayer.

About halfway through CPE I had an insight about why it was important for my own vocational journey: All seminary professors ought to take CPE.

First, some context for this insight. In my world of Episcopal seminaries it is fair to estimate that about half to two-thirds of faculty are clergy in the Episcopal Church. For virtually all of them, CPE was a requirement of their ordination process. (While the canons do not require CPE, I don’t know of a diocese that doesn’t). That means about a half to a third are lay faculty. Most are Episcopalian. I would guess this proportion holds for most other accredited seminaries. One surprise to me was that not all denominations require CPE for ordination. What this means is that there can be a healthy number of faculty in seminary who have never taken CPE.

So why do I think that the CPE experience matters for all seminary faculty?

Because faculty are in the vocation business and CPE is a critical means of discerning vocation.

I don’t think seminary is best understood as graduate school. That view provides a distorting effect on training for ministry since it places so much emphasis on intellectual achievement. Rather, I view seminary as a vocational training school. It is a place where people go who have discerned a call in community and where they learn the concepts and skills they need to live into their vocation. Seminary is also a place for ongoing and sustained discernment about the shape of a person’s vocation to ordained ministry. As they learn the content for effective ministerial leadership (biblical studies, theology, history) they also are learning how to apply that content in ethical, pastoral, liturgical, and administrative patterns. But so much of this learning process can seem abstracted and students too often have a hard time imagining themselves as ordained leaders. As a result, they often can’t imagine how their learning links to their vocation. This is where CPE comes in as a place where students concretely exercise their vocational identity and work through how that maps onto their personal identity, the formation they have received up to that point, and what they have learned in seminary.

So how do seminary professors fit into all this?

I would argue that the benefit of CPE for faculty who have not done it before is that it helps them to better understand the experience of their students. (Here I have in mind especially my own Episcopal context.) In particular, it provides an up close view of how formation for ministry and continued vocational discernment is happening to students during their seminary careers. I would argue it puts faculty into a more compassionate space and provides an opportunity to see the integrative work going on in the lives of students.

But this is not just about understanding student experiences. The genius of CPE is that it requires one to do integrative work and come to greater self-knowledge. One gains greater insight about one’s own behaviors, assumptions, and relational patterns. And this in turn provides insight into why one has chosen one’s vocational path. In short, I would argue that CPE offers the seminary professor a way of moving out of some of the deficits of university-based doctoral training that emphasizes intellectual achievement as the greatest good. CPE helps one pivot towards the vocational and formational focus that is proper to seminary-based education. This pivot enables faculty to better shape curricula, courses, and assignments towards the vocational goals towards which students are moving. On top of this, a unit of CPE can allow faculty to reconnect with their own vocational path. They can gain deeper self-knowledge about what ministry means for them in a seminary context and as a result live into a fuller calling as a seminary professor.

I realize that doing a summer of CPE is a sacrifice. It means a summer with no research, writing, or class prep. Vacation time is basically eliminated. Seminaries expect some sort of productivity during the summer, so doing CPE requires working with deans and presidents. But I believe the sacrifices are worth it.

I have also been blessed by the fact that at Seminary of the Southwest we as a faculty have been in sustained conversations over the course of the past year about what formation and vocation means. As a result, our own patterns of teaching and course design have changed and will continue to for the next several years. Not all institutions are in the same place. But I am grateful to be in a place where I can pivot from a focus on the university based model of intellectual achievement to a model of integrative preparation for a life-long vocation.


Filed under Seminaries

3 responses to “CPE and the Seminary Professor

  1. Thanks, Dan. We, your fans, look forward to hearing how this experience has changed you!

  2. David deSilva

    Your experience so closely reminds me of my CPE adventure back in 2003, for me a requirement for ordination in my conference of the United Methodist Church. Sharing our experiences would make for a great coffee break at SBL!

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