What I Learned In CPE

On Fridays I go to the hospital. It's been a few years since City By the
Sea's two hospitals formed part of my routine, as I've been serving
churches in other directions. So going in last Friday afternoon and
stopping at the Pastoral Services office to check my new congregation's
names against the alphabetical patient list brought back memories. Here
I spent the summer of 2000 as a CPE Resident, nervously figuring out
how to "cold call" unsuspecting sick people and expectant mothers on
bed rest, how to get in and out of the NICU without irritating the
staff, how to talk to the nurses in the step-down nursery, where the
babies with no home to go to just yet might languish for a week or two
or three.

Mostly I struggled with my identity.

The CPE Supervisor told us to claim it clearly and confidently. "I'm
Chaplain Songbird," we were to say, "would you like a visit?"

Those may not have been the exact words, but I do remember feeling that
whatever they were they sounded false and awkward coming out of my
mouth. I was Seminarian Songbird, Mama of Three Songbird,
Wish-I-Had-a-Boyfriend Songbird, Owned-By-Four-Cats Songbird,
Paying-a-Fortune-for-Camps-and-Nannies Songbird. But Chaplain Songbird?
What the heck?

I remember trying to find a combination of words that felt more
accurate. First of all, I began to believe one of the tasks of CPE must
be resisting authority, for me, anyway, so I always looked for another
way around. And to say I was Chaplain Songbird seemed to be
over-stating the case when I managed to get lost on the 2nd floor of
the Maine General Building when I really wanted to be on the 1st.

I tried everything, saying I was from the Chaplain's Department or the
Pastoral Services Department, but in the end I decided the Supervisor
was right, darn it! And so I went to those doors in the cancer
pavilion, where I sometimes found patients who really were there for
the air conditioning (asthma sufferers) and where a woman said, "I
didn't order that!" I went to the quiet rooms where the women on bed
rest tried not to lose their ever-loving minds, and to the shared rooms
where the teenagers with no insurance landed, to the four bed room
where an angry woman in premature labor resisted the help offered, to
the delivery room where a 42-year-old college professor and her
56-year-old husband ended a pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis that
included Trisomy 21 and additional complications.

"I'm Chaplain Songbird," I said. "I'm here to help, if I can. Would you like to talk? May I say a prayer with you?"

I stood at bedsides making myself small as possible next to equipment,
or I leaned on windowsills in a room filled with family, or I pulled a
chair up close to hold hands and pray.

Last Friday I sat at the little desk, looking at the lists, and a CPE
Resident, just beginning his summer, came in and asked the Supervisor a
question about a verbatim. Oh! How glad I am to be beyond those, to
never ever have to attend another IPR session, glad that my tour of the
morgue is nine years behind me.

As an Interim Minister, I come and go in people's lives much like a CPE
Resident, and at times I've grappled with how to identify myself. "I'm
the new interim minister at First Parish in YarPortFord."


Really, it's simple. I learned it in CPE.

"I'm here to see Mr. Jones," I tell the nurse. "I'm his pastor."

And for as long as it lasts, I am.

15 thoughts on “What I Learned In CPE”

  1. Oh does that bring back memories. Not only of my CPE days but also of my time as a chaplain at the County Hospital.

  2. Absolutely! You are his Pastor.
    I’m glad I have CPE because I use it often. I don’t miss being on-call overnight at the hospital.

  3. I did overnight on call as a volunteer for several years but am not able to do it anymore. I also find I don’t miss it, but I’m grateful for all I learned from doing it.

  4. I am so glad you are at YarPortFord….as I just finished CPE this spring, your words resonate with me greatly!!!!

  5. It’s amazing how much CPE is about self-identity as well as all the practical skills learned. I just completed a 9 month residency and by far the biggest learnings for me were all centered around my own understanding of myself.
    Thank God for CPE!

  6. I so well remember those CPE struggles with claiming authority and identity. But in the end it was all so worth it.

  7. But I’ll tell you this… I know that most people love knowing there is someone there to talk and pray with when they need it. You were so much more valued than you thought you were. :c)

  8. What a wonderful blast from the past! I last did CPE in my fifties, a generation older than my peer group, and years older than my supervisors. Interesting, yet two decades later, long retired, and volunteering for a hospice team, I have reason to appreciate CPE. Most important “learning”: never underestimate the power of pastoral presence. One wise teacher said that our society says, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Those hurting just need to say, “don’t do anything, just stand there.”

  9. The first time the words I am the Minister here came out of my mouth I felt that I was looking back at a stranger, thanks for this, I guess the search for identity will always be something that shapes and moulds us.

  10. I hope to do a year after my MDiv is done… unless of course God in wisdom sends me somewhere else. My SD told me that it was “essential” for my own growth and processing. So. I will.

  11. Thank you for both the great and not so great memories that your post provided me. The overnights in the tiny oncall room with the board, I mean bed, to sleep on. The happy moms and dads holding new borns, the broken young adults who thought nothing bad could ever happen to them but it had done just that, the elderly facing the end of this existence with so much courage and dignity. It was a great time in my life.

  12. I was just thinking yesterday about my very first CPE day in the NICU when the nurse said, “Chaplain, this baby’s about to go into surgery and I think the parents would like a prayer,” and I looked around to see where the chaplain might be.

  13. Thanks for the reflection – yours and my own that yours sparked. CPE was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done. I didn’t realize how much I’ve been wrestling with my identity in my current position until I read your thoughts on interim position and identity. Thanks for inspiring me once again. You often do.

  14. My first day on the floors in CPE, at age 22, I passed a woman 3 times in the peds waiting room before I got up the courage to go in; who was I to intrude? She was a lovely woman and we talked; she mentioned several times how much prayer helped her. But I didn’t offer to pray, because who was I to intrude? Finally–what a patient woman, and surely one of God’s angels sent to teach me!–she pulled out a prayer from her purse, said it was her favorite, and asked if we could say it together. Ohhhhh, I get it: I’m the chaplain, and I’m not intruding.

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