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Ministry Students Hone Pastoral Skills

Phil Wiechart
Phil Wiechart visits with Caroline Plank a resident at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community.

While much of America vacations, a half-dozen pastoral ministry students at Eastern Mennonite Seminary are investing a major portion of their summer in providing care and counseling for people facing illness, spiritual crisis or emotional trauma through the seminary's Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program.

"This is one of only two CPE programs in the United States based in a seminary," CPE director Kenton Derstine said. "Most are based in the pastoral care departments of large hospitals."

“The advantage of a seminary-based CPE program is that it can place students in a variety of settings – not just in hospitals, where CPE programs are typically found – but also in retirement communities, congregations, jails and other sites,” Derstine explained.

Thestudents this summer are spending time in a local hospital and several area retirement communities. One is also leading a Bible study in the local prison complex.

“Ministry students often live with questions about how they might function if called upon to minister to an individual or family in the crisis of death, trauma or a terminal illness,” said Derstine.

Students Learn to Minister

Like most students, Jill Gerig is splitting her summer CPE time between a local retirement community and a local hospital.

Gerig said, “I’ve had to learn how to take the initiative in going in to visit with people I’ve never met, just knocking on a hospital room door and asking people if they want to visit.”

Gerig is using her CPE experience to fulfill the internship requirement for her master of divinity degree.

Phil Wiechart
Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community resident Mary Ware Greene confides in Jill Gerig, CPE student.

“I’m learning how to sit with people when they are in painful situations without falsely reassuring them or moving in quickly to try to make things okay,” Gerig said. “I’m learning to be with people wherever they are – emotionally, physically and spiritually.”

“CPE students often surprise themselves with their capacity to minister in these situations and typically emerge more confident of their role and ability,” Derstine added.

CPE translates theology into practice

CPE also enables students to translate their theological theory into practice.

“I am drawing my purpose and guiding principles for pastoral care out of the experiences I’ve had this summer,” said Phil Wiechart, another M.Div. student. “One of the reasons I came to seminary was because I felt like I had limited experience providing care or counseling for people going through illness or spiritual or emotional crises. CPE has given me a wealth of experience in doing just that.”

CPE at Eastern Mennonite Seminary is offered in the summer as an intensive 10-week program in which students are engaged in course work approximately 40 hours a week. It is also offered during the school year as an extended unit from September to April.

For more information on the CPE program at EMS, visit the web site at www.emu.edu/seminary/cpe.