Pastoral Care: Crucial Learning We Often Overlook

10/06/2010 08:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I spend much of my life feeling out of my depth -- it's how I learn. But I have never felt so out of my depth as I did during my first Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) course.

CPE is a 400-hour class designed to train future clergy in how to engage emotionally and spiritually with congregants, with greater awareness of their needs and role as religious leaders. It is a requirement in most chaplaincy certification programs and is increasingly recommended for all clergy.

Our class of six students brought in examples from fieldwork at hospitals and support groups in order to study personal feelings of weakness and fear, as they came up in the course of providing spiritual counseling to others.

I was totally overwhelmed. I didn't even understand the language at times. What "energy" did a situation contain? What memories did an incident in our fieldwork invoke? How did grief fit into my theology? How had I emotionally "experienced" an event?

Thanks to wonderful classmates and a brilliant instructor, Rabbi Mychal Springer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, I made real headway in understanding myself and my beliefs as a future rabbi. But I also realized a major shortcoming of my education prior to the course, secular and religious alike: I had been taught to "achieve" but never how the process of working towards a given goal impacted me.

I might at times feel book-smart based on test scores and grades and socially confident when surrounded by friends. But what about the overwhelming majority of life that isn't quantifiable or binary? The how was left out of my life for the sake of the what. My competitive high school hadn't taught me how to live, just what to achieve in order to get into a good college. My college had worked to shape me into a leader, with more of an emphasis on the how -- but always with a goal in mind. The how, if ever brought up, was simply there to help me achieve a goal more easily.

Never was I asked to stop and think about how to live. But religion is in many ways about living a fulfilling, meaningful life. It is the how, which we so often fail to develop and elaborate upon, or which we confine to worship in sanctuaries.

One of the major reasons for its confinement is the challenge of teaching how to live -- or, as my experience in CPE would suggest, supporting and challenging people as they learn it themselves. It is easier to teach what and give grades; it is harder to encourage others to seek fulfillment and meaning.

Yet not all young people have experienced the absence of emotional learning. One who particularly comes to mind from my life is Andy Siegel, a high school senior at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. For over three years he has been helping to run a program that trains high school and college students to record the hopes, dreams, and insights that senior citizens hope to pass on to loved ones in what is known as an "ethical will." (Ethical wills are often described as "love letters to one's family.")

The project Andy helps to lead is known as "Lessons of a Lifetime" and is based out of a residence and nursing home for senior citizens. While I played a more cerebral role in helping to oversee the program with my remarkable mentor, Hedy Peyser, Andy jumped into the thick of it. By the end of his first summer taking part in it -- when he was only 14, no less -- he had recorded the ethical wills of nearly a dozen different seniors. He spent much of his time sitting at their bedsides, asking them about what they experienced, saw, believed, prayed for, and reflected upon that could be recorded as a gift of wisdom for the next generation.

What was most remarkable was not the large number of hours Andy put into his work -- the what -- but the how of Andy's work. It touched him and made him search inside himself. In his words at the time, it "put things in perspective" and was "one of the best things I've ever done." And because he opened himself up, seniors opened up, too, and felt truly listened to and fulfilled by the process of dictating their life's stories and reflections.

As a program director, I was thrilled with Andy's work but didn't realized just how much he had connected with the seniors through the process of recording their insights in ethical wills, how much working with them had brought out the greater wisdom he held within.

Then, over a period of time, one of the residents with whom he had worked began to get sicker and sicker. It soon became clear that she was dying.

Instead of shying away, as most people twice or three times his age might have, Andy began spending more and more time with his dying friend and her family. He came to her room after school, day after day, with warm words for his elderly friend and warm food for her somber family. He comforted them, cried with them, and prayed with them. When the resident died, he was one of the first people the family called. He was someone they knew would grieve with them.

Andy was providing pastoral care. He was doing so even before he was old enough to drive himself to the senior residence. He had a remarkable knowledge of life and his own humanity that could not be measured in test scores or grades. He was emotionally and spiritually a success -- even when the very notion of success became irrelevant in the course of his experiences.

Andy taught me so much. And I am grateful for the chance to learn from him and by his example. Based on Andy's experience, recording the ethical will of senior citizens may be an important way of gaining insight into oneself.

I've decided to continue on with my pastoral education through an internship this year and with plans for another CPE course next summer. But others -- including those with no intention of joining the clergy -- need not wait until graduate school to get an education in their own emotions and the innate spirituality they invoke.