top of page

Decolonizing Clinical Pastoral Education

Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, as it is better known, began in the early 20th century as a means of introducing seminarians to real, live humans and their accompanying complexities. At its inception, CPE was a resource designed for and made available to a privileged few. Anton Boisen, one of the early figures in the CPE movement, was himself a graduate of Yale and the training he developed was for men--read here white men--who were preparing for ordination, while studying full time in a residential seminary.

CPE today remains a resource designed and reserved for a privileged few. Look no further than the requirement of 400 clinical hours in a sanctioned hospital for a single unit of CPE, which can cost students upward of $1800 for each unit. CPE programs presume students come seminary trained with high levels of literacy, advanced writing skills, and the tools for theological reflection. All of those requirements are passive gatekeeping measures, which restrict participation of language learners, and anyone without substantial financial and educational resources.

Allow me to make an obvious observation: being present to another human soul does not require advanced degrees, highly developed writing skills or even--I’ll dare to add--high literacy levels. Robust spiritual care requires spiritual depth and compassionate curiosity for self and others.

CPE’s prerequisites are a direct result of how inextricably linked CPE has become to certification processes. Certification arguments notwithstanding, CPE has emerged as the machinery by which seminarians are transformed into “professional” chaplains (or ordained ministers). Which is to say, CPE has become a job training program.

And while there’s nothing wrong, per say, with an educational resource designed to train a specific group for a specific task, CPE has become an untenable expense to just about anyone besides those pursuing a career in professional chaplaincy or ordained ministry.

Yet if you talk to anyone who has experienced CPE, they will typically regale you with stories about how life transforming the process was for them. The CPE model is predicated on a structure of action-reflection-action, which is articulated through case studies and is an effective tool for developing the practice of self reflection. In the right hands, the work of CPE offers its practitioners ample opportunities to develop liberating insights about themselves and the ways they show up in their spiritual/pastoral care encounters. In short, the work of CPE can be life transforming far beyond certification requirements.

CFLC is working to make the life-transforming resources of CPE available to anyone who needs or wants them. This is especially critical in a post-pandemic world, where social isolation and spiritual hunger abound.

For the past two years, we have worked with five very diverse lay CPE cohorts to adapt the case study model, which is central to the work of CPE. We are currently in the process of fine tuning our curriculum, so it can be readily available for those contexts that need it. It is our sincere hope that the resources CFLC is developing will introduce fresh energy and ideas into the practice of chaplaincy, everywhere.

147 views2 comments



As a certified ACPE Educator, I have several comments about this. I agree that CPE is geared toward professional chaplaincy and as such is priced (unfortunately) as a program of professional education. It is often expensive, so is medical training. I also agree that the methods are well suited to use for those wishing to be volunteer listeners and I am using them myself as we develop such programs that are open to anyone. I am totally against giving away the title of "chaplain", lay or otherwise, to folks who have only 12 weeks of training. A big heart and deep faith do matter, but let's not diminish what a clinically trained spiritual care provider can offer by equati…


Professionalized chaplaincy is an emerging field and while it is understandable that arguments over territory arise, I find it a deeply lamentable and sourced in a narrative of scarcity. I suggest comparing our project to the ways graduate schools differentiate between PhD-level students and master-level students. In academic contexts, nobody is confused about the credentials associated with each program, and there is need for both kinds of degree programs in the world. Our trainees are clear about the parameters of their training and credentials and we are persuaded the need exists for both board certified, professional chaplains and trained, volunteer chaplains. Professionalized chaplaincy largely follows federal and state revenue streams, such as medicare reimbursement, the military, and prisons. This leaves…

bottom of page