When in crisis, many people turn to a religious leader for comfort. More often than not, they provide support so efficiently that it seems they were born to do just that.
To some extent, that may be true, but natural abilities will only take you so far. To become even more effective, many pastors turn to Clinical Pastoral Education — or CPE — programs.
"Most ministers are fixers by nature," said Christopher Hurt, Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center chaplain.
"CPE helps you understand that you can't, and aren't supposed to fix everything. It teaches you how to be there and just listen. Listening is very important."
According to Jeff Thompson, Northeast Georgia Medical Center chaplain, it also helps students grow.
"CPE training tries to help you understand not only the situation, but also yourself," Thompson said.
"It helps you understand what your blind-spots are — what you are afraid of and how to overcome those issues. For instance, say you are the pastor of a church and you get a call at 2 a.m. that one of your members has committed suicide."
"If you took CPE courses, then you would know that the family is dealing with severe grief and trauma. CPE training gives you more experience to make you better able to help that family."
CPE is all about experiential learning — students, generally ministers or seminary students — take the courses in accredited facilities like hospitals, jails and psychiatric institutions.
Northeast Georgia Medical Center recently graduated its first group of students under it's new Provisional Candidacy Accredited Training Center status with the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education.
"We began offering our first CPE unit in 2000, before then, it had never been offered in this area. We offered it in connection with an organization out of Atlanta," Thompson said.
"In order to offer CPE, you have to do it under an accredited agency, since the medical center wasn't accredited, we became a satellite program of the Atlanta program."
That continued until last year when the medical center pursued and obtained provisional accreditation. If the program progresses as it should, the medical center's CPE program should receive full accreditation within the next few years.
"Interest in the program continues to grow. The fall unit, which concluded in December, had seven students - that was our largest class to date," Thompson said.
"For the spring unit, which begins next week, we have 10 students enrolled."
Besides being the only CPE program north of metro Atlanta, or between Chattanooga, Tenn., and Anderson, S.C, Thompson says the local program is unique in other ways.
"In general, CPE programs are 10 weeks, 40 hours per week, which doesn't leave time for students to work at other things," Thompson said.
"Since most of our students are working ministers, we offer an extended 17-week unit with only 24 hours per week."
Being a "non-anxious presence" — a calming force in the midst of an individual's personal crisis — is one of the skills that the students learn in CPE training.
"I learned how to just be with a person — to not let my own anxiety or unresolved issues interfere in that moment," said Greg Thompson, medical center chaplain.
"Sometimes being a non-anxious presence is tough, but that's what you have to focus on being. In this day and time, it's hard to find people who are willing to just listen without judgment."
Although some graduates go on to pursue additional training to become vocational chaplains, the majority use their CPE to bolster their general ministerial skills.
During the course of the program, students spend one day a week in a classroom setting, the rest of the time is spent gaining experience interacting with the medical center's patients, visitors and staff as chaplains.
"In level one training, I primarily discovered who I was as a (person and pastor). It helped me to differentiate between certain situations," said James Dumas, medical center chaplain.
"I'm an extrovert, so one of the most difficult things for me is to just sit and listen, but sometimes that's all people need — a listening ear. I once just stood by the door in a patient's hospital room while their family grieved. I didn't say anything, I just quietly stood by the door."
"Every family group has their unofficial spokesperson. After a while, the spokesperson said ‘Thanks for all you did today. We really appreciate it.' All I had done was stand by the door. Sometimes that's all people need — someone to just be there."