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CPE class helps prepare pastors for rigors of ministry

6/19/2021

By Kara Witherow, Editor

Rev. Greg Harrison officiated five funerals in the first six months of his last appointment.

By the time he finished his second year at the church, he had conducted 15.

“That was a significant portion of my congregation,” said Rev. Harrison, who now serves as associate pastor of Wynnton United Methodist Church in Columbus. “I was feeling stressed out, burned out, and I just didn’t know how to navigate through what I was experiencing. I didn’t even know how to name what I was experiencing.”

Seminary hadn’t prepared him, nor had his time in campus ministry.

So when he saw that a course in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was being offered by Dr. John Walker, Vice President of Spiritual Care at Magnolia Manor, he thought it would offer valuable ministry training.

“I thought I’d get some good pastoral counseling skills, I’d get some good training, and I’d learn how to do this effectively and do it well,” he said.

A 20-week graduate-level ministry education course, CPE focuses on learning how to listen and attend to parishioners more effectively.

“We work on honing our skills to be better listeners so we can understand where people are coming from and offer better care,” Dr. Walker said. “How can we help and offer care if we don’t know … what’s going on?”

Passionate about pastoral care training and a supervisor-in-training licensed by The College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, Dr. Walker has led three CPE units and will lead a fourth beginning next month. It’s a critical need in the church, he says, and teaching the class is one way he serves and gives back.

“Seminary didn’t give us all the tools we need to be effective in ministry,” he said. The CPE class, with its group sessions, grief work, case study discussions, and more, helps equip clergy and lay ministers for the rigors of being a pastor. While seminary gave him a great theological education and an understanding of how a church functions, Dr. Walker said it didn’t teach him the skills he needed to deeply relate to or understand people.

“Ministry is more pastoral care than preaching,” he said. “We preach one time a week, but day to day we do more pastoral care than we do preaching.”

The skills learned during the CPE unit aren’t just a bunch of abstract theories, though, said Rev. Harrison, who has taken two CPE courses. When put into practice, they actually help solve the challenges pastors face.

“(CPE) changed quite a bit about how I approach pastoral care and visitation,” he said.

Instead of falling back on a somewhat rote, formulaic “visitation mode” script, through CPE Rev. Harrison has learned to better listen to those who are hurting.

“CPE taught me that I need to shut up and listen first to the person I’m providing care for and simply be present with them instead of worrying about platitudes,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what I say. They’re not going to remember what I say, more than likely, if they’re in the middle of a traumatic experience. Jesus was present with those who suffered, and in following Jesus, part of our calling is a ministry of presence.”

Both Rev. Harrison and Dr. Walker say the CPE coursework is meaningful, important, and transformative.

“My work with CPE has opened me up to understand so much more about the needs people have,” Dr. Walker said. “This is the best course I’ve ever taken in terms of building my skills as a pastor and as a pastoral caregiver. It has paid dividends beyond what I could have ever dreamed.”

While Rev. Harrison hasn’t yet been called upon to officiate a funeral in Columbus, he has spent time with grieving families and those in the midst of crisis.

Just last week, he sat with two longtime church members, one of whom is in hospice care. In the past, he would likely have visited for 30 minutes, said a few words, offered a prayer, and left. Now that he’s gone through CPE training, he’s more aware of underlying needs and is better able to listen deeply.

“In that moment she didn’t need to hear platitudes, she needed someone to listen to the stories of his life and the kind of person her husband was.”

The Summer-Fall CPE unit will begin July 15. A hybrid model, some sessions will meet in person and some will meet via Zoom. For more information, contact Dr. John Walker at jwalker@magnoliamanor.com or 229-815-6988.

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