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Finding Faith in Hospital Settings Chaplains Praise Clinical Pastoral Education

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Above image credit: St. Luke's flagship hospital in Kansas City is now part of the state's largest hospital system. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)
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4 minute read

When Jerry Kolb, chaplain emeritus at St. Luke’s Health System, thinks about the special training for chaplains he introduced to the hospital 50 years ago, he’s both pleased about and proud of the difference it’s made. 

Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.) is, for almost every student who goes through it, a life-changing experience,” he says. 

Many others agree. 

A recent St. Luke’s C.P.E. graduate, the Rev. Chad Herring, says simply, “I loved that training.” 

As Joel Carmer, a chaplain with Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, looks back at his C.P.E. training at Research Medical Center, he says this: “I found myself engaged in the most fulfilling, challenging and vulnerable time in my life as an adult. Peering into my personal abyss was unnerving and powerful at the same time.” 

And the Rev. Joanna Tarr, director of pastoral education at St. Luke’s, puts it this way: “It’s hard work that most people don’t want to do. Most people don’t want to look at themselves that deeply. But it affects the quality of care that we give. Patients feel cared for, listened to, respected and valued.” 

All of that and more is why, in late November, St. Luke’s plans to celebrate C.P.E.’s 50-year history at the hospital. And why most of 100 years after C.P.E. was created in Chicago, it has become the gold standard for training chaplains everywhere and helped to spread chaplaincy work beyond hospitals to hospices, psychiatric institutions, prisons and even industry. 

C.P.E. began in the 1930s when the Rev. Anton Boisen began to require that his Chicago Theological Seminary students be in supervised contact with patients in mental hospitals. Boisen, by the way, learned the value of trained chaplains when he suffered several psychotic breakdowns. 

Rachel Greiner, director of pastoral care at HCA Midwest Health.
Rachel Greiner, director of pastoral care at HCA Midwest Health, says C.P.E.-trained chaplains like her know that they need to “attend to the loss and the broken and the scared inside of ourselves.” (Courtesy | HCA Health Midwest)

Rachel Greiner, director of pastoral care at HCA Midwest Health, says C.P.E.-trained chaplains understand that “the way we can learn to attend to the lost and the broken and the scared is to attend to the lost and the broken and the scared inside of ourselves. And we all have those pieces.” 

There can be — and often is — a big difference between what a hospital chaplain (C.P.E. training now is almost universally required to be one) brings into a patient’s room and what a patient’s own visiting pastor brings. 

“A call to congregational ministry and a call to chaplaincy are not the same calls,” says Herring, who temporarily is serving as interim senior associate pastor at Village Presbyterian Church. “There are unique circumstances and demands to each and skill sets required.” 

Greiner, in fact, says that although some congregational pastors handle hospital visits well, if a member of the clergy or a layperson without C.P.E. training comes into a hospital room it’s likely that “they would probably be very uncomfortable, they would talk a lot because of that and they would ask the patient if they could pray. (They) would not be curious and would not ask about anything but surface-level things. When you have someone trained or in training, you’re going to get more nuanced and pointed, reflective statements designed to help the patient look deeper. 

“I can’t tell you how often I have to disabuse a patient or a family member of what they think a chaplain is. One is that I’m the angel of death and am coming to tell them that they’re dying. Which is comical to us because we don’t give out medical information. Or, two, that I’m coming to beat them in the head with a Bible. And neither of those things is true. I enjoy meeting them where they are and showing them what a professional chaplain actually does.” 

As Herring describes it, C.P.E.’s interfaith training teaches chaplains “organized, reflective listening with the goal of attending to the emotions of the people in the room, including the chaplain; bringing those emotions to the fore in healthy and productive ways when appropriate; providing, in the middle of that, spiritual assessment using known and peer-engaged spiritual assessment tools; when appropriate, spiritual interventions, if you want to call them that, related to the emotional engagement of the people in the room to the issues that they’re dealing with, with the aim of healing and wholeness in a holistic sense. 

“Our job as chaplains is to enhance the agency of the patients. In fact, we’re trying to enhance agency for all of the people involved. A chaplain is there to bring dignity to the situation, to allow the people to claim the dignity that is theirs…so people understand what the doctors and nurses in the hospital are providing to them.” 

Chad Herring, interim senior associate pastor at Village Presbyterian Church.
Chad Herring, interim senior associate pastor at Village Presbyterian Church and a recent graduate of St. Luke’s C.P.E. training, says C.P.E. teaches “organized, reflective listening with the goal of attending to the emotions of the people in the (hospital) room, including the chaplain.” (Courtesy | Village Presbyterian Church)

And as Kolb notes, C.P.E.-trained chaplains now are being invited to meet with medical students to help them enhance their bedside listening skills. In other words, chaplains are now educating doctors. 

When Kolb first was offered a job as a St. Luke’s chaplain in the early 1970s, he responded this way: “‘Anybody who’d take this job has got to be crazy’ because they had two chaplains at the time and 650 licensed beds at St. Luke’s.” 

But he eventually decided to accept and finish his own C.P.E. training. Then he led the creation of that training for others. 

“C.P.E.,” says Kolb, “puts into practical application things that seminary professors have put into students’ heads.” 

Carmer, who through Kansas City Hospice now devotes his time to caring for families in bereavement, says he’s learned through C.P.E. training that “I must listen with new ears, an open heart and mind. I hear their grief as they are experiencing it with each conversation. Each hour of every day, they are adjusting to their ‘new normal,’ which is a place of vulnerability and fear for most.” 

So doing chaplaincy work today means being the one person in a hospital room with no agenda beyond the gift of presence and a willingness to listen. 

And that’s a gift to everyone in the room. 

Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com. 


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