May 28, 2003

VUMC offers innovative pastoral education program

Hospital patients who face difficult decisions sometimes turn to a chaplain or pastor and ask, "What should I do?" or "Why is this happening to me?"

Hospital patients who face difficult decisions sometimes turn to a chaplain or pastor and ask, "What should I do?" or "Why is this happening to me?"

In Dan McRight’s experience, at such moments patients aren’t really looking for advice or explanations. They’re trying to work out their own solution, and it’s best for the chaplain simply to listen and give feedback so that the patient knows he is being understood.

"That is the heart of pastoral care," said McRight, director of Clinical Pastoral Education for the Nashville CPE Partnership, formed last year among Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Baptist and St. Thomas hospitals and the McKendree Village retirement community.

The training program provides a year’s residency and separate quarter-length modules in clinical pastoral care for prospective hospital and nursing home chaplains, community clergy, seminarians, divinity students and interested lay people. The initial group of five residents entered the program last September.

Each week residents and other trainees spend at least 30 hours working in the hospital with patients, families, staff and faculty, and another 10 hours in group sessions led by McRight.

Group topics range from theological and psychological aspects of clinical pastoral care to more concrete matters like when to refer patients to a social worker.

Half the group time is devoted to current case studies. Participants are required to write down conversations with those whom they serve in the hospital, and these accounts " minus the names of patients, family members, staff and faculty " become subject to candid classroom discussion.

Participants critique the approaches used by their fellow trainees, then take their turn on the hot seat themselves. Among other things, trainees gain appreciation of the diversity of human experience and beliefs, and learn the importance of not letting one’s personal issues interfere with working with patients.

"The bottom line is to let the patient set the agenda," said VUMC Chaplain Barry Culbertson. McRight explained that people who are sick or anxious are often able to express deep feelings to a chaplain or pastor. On those occasions, "It becomes a sacred moment," he said. "Those moments are like standing on holy ground. You put up with a lot of the other things because of those times."

McRight works with residents and other trainees to set individual learning goals and evaluate performance.

The program is scheduled to be independently accredited later this year by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education; in the meantime, the program is technically a satellite of an accredited CPE program at the Veterans Affairs Hospital.

Media contact: Paul Govern, (615) 322-4747