10/05/2011 10:14 am ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

Clinical Pastoral Education: The 'Best' Disaster Training

For persons of faith, disaster response may be the social action of our time.

For those who, in another era, protested war or marched for civil rights, this past decade has seen catastrophic weather and human-caused events that defy imagination and probability. Images repeatedly played (and over-played) with tales of survivors and suffering, compel the faithful to help our impacted neighbors and alleviate suffering and offer basic scriptural hospitality. Some seek to go to where the headlines are, although continuing needs for feeding the hungry and caring for the sick exist nearer home. When you add natural disasters combined with pre-existing medical and social needs (i.e., cancer and malnutrition simply don't go away because what limited housing you may have may be destroyed, or your food and medications have literally floated down the river), the impact of the initial disaster has been severely compounded.

The emerging and growing need for emotional and spiritual care in disasters begs the question of preparation and training. After September 11, many faith groups started developing disaster spiritual care curriculums for their faith communities and social mission proponents. Scientific studies after September 11 polling faith community volunteers came up with a significant result: basic disaster training (orientation, what to expect, etc.) made a difference both in lowering compassion fatigue and burnout. This study was led by Rabbi Stephan Roberts and published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases.

After recruiting, training and managing 360 highly credentialed healthcare and police and fire chaplains these past ten years, I've been often asked; "What is the best disaster training for persons of faith?"

My response? CPE. Clinical Pastoral Education.

CPE is an action/reflection model of adult education that is generally clinically based in healthcare or other community settings. Along with small group process and supervision, CPE students -- both lay and ordained -- are assigned patients or units in hospitals or outpatient clinics and learn to listen, make spiritual assessments and collaborate on multi-disciplinary care/treatment plans for the total welfare and healing of the patient.

Oftentimes, CPE is described as helping the patient find meaning in their illness or injury, and process the feelings that, in itself, becomes therapeutic. Treating the whole person and not just the broken bones or virus, is not a new concept. However, the increasing professionalism and certification of experience and the learning may make a tremendous difference today. Visiting the sick takes on a whole new meaning. Visiting those who have lost family and loved ones in a hurricane or plane crash, requires a higher professional training and credential so that those already traumatized are not further harmed -- emotionally or spiritually -- by do-gooders who may make things worse by absence of knowledge and preparation on how to 'help'.

Clinical Pastoral Education also has a self-care component. Building self-awareness and working as a member of an integrated care team -- both in the healthcare as well as the disaster setting -- may prevent secondary traumatization and exposure for those supporting the disaster survivors and their loved ones. Again, building on lessons learned from past catastrophic disasters has made a difference in protecting those who may respond to anticipated future incidents.

Limiting the exposure to horrific crash sites and land leveled by fatal tornados, is vital to the safety and sanity of first responders and those public servants who deal with rescue and recovery -- oftentimes which may take weeks and months when planes crash offshore or buildings are reduced to toxic ash and dust.

That's why I urge all who wish to respond to mass fatality and everyday disasters -- house fires to car wrecks, broken arms to heart attacks, domestic violence to child abuse -- to have CPE. And, the clinical training in a healthcare setting transfers readily to the disaster arena.

A two-day training in most instances simply just doesn't cut it. Responding to disasters may not be optional when the disaster occurs in your backyard, and, by circumstances, you are a first responder. Understanding CPR and Basic First Aid can make a huge difference in saving lives or not making things worse until the EMT's arrive. Keeping survivors safe and companioning them until help arrives makes a huge difference. However, proximity to the event has an impact on those closest to the event and their own emotional and spiritual make-up.

So, for those persons of faith who wish to respond to disaster -- to work as a member of a trained team providing emotional and spiritual support -- CPE, in my experience and gleaned wisdom, is the 'best' disaster training.