CPE as Theological (Trans)formation

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The Rev. David W. Fleenor

Director of CPE for the Mount Sinai Health System

Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was not just a formative part of my education and training for the priesthood; it was transformative.

I became an Episcopalian during my second year of a Master of Divinity program at a Pentecostal seminary, in no small part due to CPE. It was in the context of that educational environment that I found a community in which I could give voice to deeply held doubts about my Pentecostal faith and ministry practice. I remember during the first week of CPE walking into a patient’s room whose foot had been amputated due to diabetes.

My first thought was to lay hands on him and pray for a miracle. Then my second thought was that my first thought was nuts and I should try something else. It was then and there that I learned the healing power of pastoral listening. I opened up a conversation with this man about his life and then listened as he poured out his heart. This encounter caused me to rethink everything about my faith and ministry, which is precisely the point of CPE.

The CPE program invites students to engage in a potentially transformative educational experience by reflecting on deeply held assumptions about theology and relationships. And it begins with an exploration of one’s own personal history.

All of us have painful personal histories, whether we have lived relatively mundane lives or ones filled with tragedy. A goal of CPE is to facilitate the process of reflecting on our wounds, bringing them into the warm light of community, and allowing God to transform them into gifts for ministry.

I remember coming face-to-face with my own painful personal history during my first unit of CPE. I hadn’t realized how lonely I was before encountering profound loneliness in a patient. As the patient tried to tell me how lonely he felt, I reflexively changed the subject. When I presented this in a verbatim case study, my CPE supervisor and peers addressed my blind spot. It was clear to them that I had avoided this man’s pain because I wanted to avoid my own. I couldn’t see that. But in that safe and trusting group, I was able to vulnerably explore my personal history with them.

As I did, I began to identify ways to better meet my personal needs, so I could be more available to persons who sought my pastoral care. That experience, and countless others in CPE, set me on a journey toward becoming a reflective pastoral practitioner, a wounded healer, and an Episcopalian; but that is a much longer story. Of course, not everyone who completes a unit of CPE will change denominations. But anyone who fully engages in the process of CPE has the potential to be transformed in unimaginable ways.

The late Will Spong, Episcopal priest, CPE supervisor, and the lesser-known brother of retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, summed it up best when he said: “Do not be afraid to have pain; for in so doing, you will hang in constantly as redemptive people in the process of life.” CPE teaches us to face our painful personal histories, so God may transform our wounds and use us in ministries of healing.

The Rev. David W. Fleenor, S.T.M., B.C.C., is a 2006 graduate of General Seminary. He is a board certified chaplain, a certified CPE supervisor, and currently serves as the Director of CPE for the Mount Sinai Health System and as an associate priest at Church of the Transfiguration in New York City.