Union sat down with Union Rabbi Jeffery Silberman, Director of the new Doctor of Ministry program in supervisory spiritual care education, to ask him how this new program will help CPE supervisors. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Union: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, what brought you into this work?
JS: I’ve been doing Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) for over 30 years now. I started 37 years ago, doing CPE for the first time. I’ve always enjoyed it. When I was ordained as a rabbi, I started out in a synagogue in Boston, and it was not particularly fulfilling for me. When I went into CPE, meeting people one on one, it was a totally different ballgame. I felt like I made a difference. I felt like I got to know people on a different level. And then, when I got a chance to teach CPE students, and I got to work with them on their own development, their own growth and self-awareness, that was very fulfilling to me. So I’ve kept at it: I became a supervisor in 1985 and have been doing it ever since.
Union: How has the field changed in that time?
JS: It’s changed a lot, particularly in recent years. I was the first Rabbi who was certified as an ACPE supervisor, and I was essentially alone for a long time. Now there are over 20 rabbis who are CPE supervisors, so that’s a big change. Then, the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) became accredited the United States Department of Education, which was a significant change because it really forced the national Association for Clinical Pastoral Education to articulate very clear standards and outcomes on an educational perspective. Along with that has come a lot of different changes in terms of how we accredit training programs, what our expectations are for students. This is one of the critical issues that ended up bringing me here to Union. Across the country, the median age of ACPE supervisors is 61, which means in the next 10 years or so, many supervisors will retire and filling their positions is very, very important.
Union: So what makes Union well-suited to offer this kind of training?
JS: Union has a perspective that is very, very consistent with the perspective of ACPE. For example, multiculturalism and multi-faith engagement are strong suits of Union and central to ACPE. It’s been a long battle. Going back 20-30 years, there were very few women in ACPE as supervisors, now there are significant numbers, and it’s great! It really changes the dynamics of how we do the work we do. I believe more African-Americans, more Jews, more Buddhists and other religious traditions would certainly help all of us. Over the years ACPE has tried to claim “this diversity is who we are,” but I don’t personally believe that they’ve been as effective as they could be in practicing that. I think what Union brings to that arena is both experience and expertise in talking about and navigating the multi-faith, multi-cultural environment. Union’s environment is really special.
In addition, we have outstanding educators here. Pamela Cooper White. She’s one of the preeminent scholars, writers of pastoral theology and spiritual care practice. Dean Mary Boys is an outstanding teacher, has connections with top educators across the country. I could go through and list all the faculty, there are just outstanding people here. That makes Union a central player in spiritual care education.
Union: Why is it important to have a theologically diverse pastoral staff in hospitals and other care settings?
JS: In most communities around the country, hospitals are forming networks and alignments so they’re serving an ever broader and diverse community. I work at Bridgeport Hospital; Bridgeport is the largest city in Connecticut, it’s also one of the poorest cities in Connecticut, and it’s a majority-minority city. Our hospital population is very diverse, and our chaplains and chaplain educators need to be able to engage those folks without making a lot of assumptions. That’s critically important to be effective in clinical spiritual care.
But, more broadly, we’re seeing more and more people in the hospital identify as spiritual but not religious. That’s a phenomenon that a lot of our community clergy don’t know what to do with. It’s important that we in spiritual care work with that phenomenon, and talk about it with our student chaplains. It’s a challenge but it is not taboo; it’s not wrong; it’s just where many people are today. My take is that those people still have spiritual needs when they come to the hospital.
Union: So what would you say to people who might say, “since Americans are growing less religious according to overt markers of religion, there’s no need for pastoral care, there’s no need for chaplaincy.”
JS: Obviously, I don’t believe that. The fact of the matter is anyone who is in the hospital is experiencing a kind of personal crisis, spiritual distress of some kind. They struggle with the anxiety of what it is that they’re facing medically; they struggle with the isolation of being in the hospital; they struggle with a sense of responsibility to their family that they’re unable to fulfill at this time; they struggle with so many issues. Quite often, patients make a theological assumption that somehow they’ve done something wrong, that God is punishing them by giving them this illness, which causes even more spiritual distress. Being alone in a bed for hours a day, without anyone to talk to, they ruminate about that, they obsess about it, they wonder about it. We teach chaplains to go in and listen to the person and hear their unique issues of meaning. That particular skill of listening carefully is surprisingly absent in our culture at this point.
Union: So who are the ideal candidates for this program?
JS: The program was designed to support and develop the academic and conceptual knowledge that one needs to become a supervisor. We’re not doing a CPE Supervisory Education program in the sense of ACPE. Our target candidate is someone who’s in the process of becoming a clinical pastoral educator, who’s doing clinical work in a hospital. We’re going to provide them with a very solid foundation in what they need to know about personality theory, adult learning theory, group process and theory, and clinical theology as it pertains to supervision and spiritual care in general. Secondarily, we’ve heard from the response across the country that some supervisors, people who are already certified educators, see this as a way to broaden their foundational knowledge. The certification process has been expedited in such a way that many supervisors have a much lesser range of theoretical knowledge than they might in order to do this work. In addition, there are people who have done a CPE residency, who have a M. Div., who work as chaplains, and are thinking about going into supervisory education. We’ve encouraged those folks to apply to the program as well.