In addition to seminary, one of the requirements for ordination in the Episcopal Church is participation in a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. CPE programs are designed to help people develop skills for pastoral care, especially in the context of crisis. Most CPE students work in hospitals, but some also work in prisons, churches, homeless ministries, hospices, etc. The program is designed not only to develop interpersonal skills, but to also develop some deep self-reflective practices which will help a pastor stay healthy and better personally process the crises of others. It’s typical for seminarians to participate in a CPE program after their first year of seminary, and I have been working on preparations to make that happen for myself. Last week I sent in my first application to a CPE program, and it was a lot of work! For example, the first question was: “Provide a reasonably full account of your life.” I ended up writing 10 single spaced pages for the entire application. One of the questions I found interesting was about describing a “helping incident” and I thought I’d share my response with you.
You can listen to my audio response or read my written response below.
5. An account of a “helping incident” in which you were the person who provided the help. Include the nature and extent of the request, your assessment of the issue(s), problem(s), situation(s). Describe how you came to be involved and what you did. Give a brief, evaluative commentary on what you did and how you believe you were able to help.
While in graduate school I worked as a contractor for gas companies. The work consisted of knocking on doors unannounced and asking if I could update their gas meters or make an appointment to do so. In order to complete my work I had to go inside the house and often pull out their stove and other appliances to check for gas leaks. Surprisingly, the nature of the work involved an intimacy with people. I would often catch people vulnerable in their own home before they had the chance to clean up or put on their “public” self and found it important to hold that space as sacred. I often got caught up in conversations with people, and they shared with me much about their lives, fears and all. The work didn’t seem much different from giving pastoral visits besides working on their gas meters. I have a lot of stories from the time I worked there.
One of these visits was at the apartment of an older woman. I had finished my work outside and came inside to check her appliances. As I worked we talked and she asked if I was in school and I shared with her I was working on a MA in Theology and hoped to become a priest. Often when I shared that information, people would either close off or open up. There was always a definite change in people’s demeanor, but most of the time it meant they opened up as it did in this particular case. The woman began to share with me how lonely she was. It had been 9 months since the passing of her husband of 40 years and she still hadn’t gotten used to life without him. I could tell she deeply missed him. When I finished my work we continued talking and she took me through her home telling stories and sharing pictures of her husband. She showed me nicknacks they had acquired throughout the years and even showed me where he had died in that very apartment. She asked me what I thought about the afterlife and where her husband might be and I talked about the mystery of what’s next and the eternity of God’s love. She shared with me her own faith. We probably spent 45 minutes to an hour talking and in her tears we ended our time with a brief prayer and I went on my way.
I think of this as a “helping incident” because even though she didn’t directly ask for help and I wasn’t there specifically to help, in her loneliness she needed someone with whom she could talk. She needed reassurance of her own life and purpose and the eternal destiny of her husband. I wasn’t there as a clergy member, or a friend, I was there simply to work on the gas meter but I made sure I was attentive to her as a human being and not simply a customer. I could have finished my work and left right away and it wouldn’t have been inappropriate. We were paid by the meter and I could have been off to the next one to make more money, but I felt in that moment God’s Spirit leading me to simply listen to the woman, which is what I mostly did. I didn’t actually say all that much. I just listened. I let her show me pictures and tell her stories. I just paid attention, and I think that’s all she wanted in that moment. I was able to give that to her, and it wasn’t hard to do. It was certainly intimidating for me. I don’t have a lot of experience with that kind of pastoral care and it tends to take me time to connect with strangers, but I really felt like this was an important moment for me to share with her and follow the Spirit’s leading. My only regret is that I didn’t keep in touch with her. It wasn’t my role to keep in touch and I don’t know if it would have been appropriate to stay in touch with a customer or not, but I wish I had at least given her a follow up call later. Whatever the case, I believe that was an important moment for both me and her, and it was particularly so because neither of us expected it in the moment. I was just there to change a gas meter. But sometimes God has other plans.