Virtual training provides unique opportunity for pastoral care

The program allows all SSM Health pastoral care employees to receive education


Our spirituality affects our physical, mental and emotional well-being, and those needs are often at their greatest during times of medical or personal distress. Recognizing this, each ministry across SSM Health employs highly-trained pastoral care staff to attend to the spiritual and emotional well-being of every person through care that is truly focused on the fullness of the person.

All full-time chaplains across the system hold a master's degree and are required to complete two or more units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which helps prepare pastoral care staff to meet the unique needs of each patient. In the past, chaplains have had to navigate obstacles like distance and time in order to complete this training, but a new virtual offering at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital seeks to make CPE more accessible to all SSM Health chaplains.

CPE provides specialized training designed for a clinical setting, teaching chaplains how to minister in the context of crisis, how to develop helping relationships with patients and families whom they are meeting for the first time, and how to meet the needs of particular populations of patients and families, such as transplant patients, oncology patients or behavioral health patients. This training also helps prepare chaplains to minister to people across a wide range of faiths and beliefs – something pastors do not usually learn in seminary.

SSM Health SLU Hospital houses the only accredited center for Clinical Pastoral Education in the system. When SLU Hospital joined SSM Health in 2015, SSM Health pastoral care and Mission leaders identified an opportunity to expand professional development offerings to pastoral care staff system-wide and created an innovative virtual training program. Through this program, chaplains from every region come together one half-day each week for 22 weeks, joining the group virtually from their own SSM Health ministry for most training sessions, as well as meeting in person three times during the 22-week course.

"In many cases, rural locations or the demands of a full-time work schedule may make acquiring this type of training nearly impossible," said Cristina Stephenson, director of pastoral care and education and one of two CPE-certified educators at SSM Health SLU Hospital. "Our virtual training program allows us to bring professional development to our chaplains right where they already are."

The program also enables participants to use their own place of employment for their required clinical hours, streamlining the process for those who are already working full-time.

"CPE is so rarely offered that this opportunity is an enormous blessing," said Joannie Naraghi, chaplain at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital - Centralia. "I've grown personally and professionally over my [nearly] two units, and I am looking forward to continuing my investment in the program."

Launched in October 2016, the program consists of case studies, group sharing, theological reflection, and instruction in pastoral care skills and competencies. Participants represent diverse theological backgrounds, from Christian to Buddhist, and hail from multiple regions within SSM Health. 

"Virtual Clinical Pastoral Education has been a tremendous gift to me. It has allowed me the opportunity to grow and develop as a chaplain while bringing chaplains across the system together. Cristina has put together a tremendous resource for SSM Health, starting with the chaplains and trickling down throughout the care facilities to patients, their families and the staff," said Jonathan Tipton, staff chaplain at SSM Health St. Clare Hospital - Baraboo.

SSM Health promotes lifelong learning, and virtual CPE is an opportunity to support pastoral care staff in ongoing professional development, encouraging chaplains to stay up-to-date on best practices while also creating a close-knit group of peers from across the system with whom to share fellowship and continued learning long after the CPE session has been completed.

"My experience with the virtual CPE class has been a growing experience," said Lisa Deutsch, chaplain with SSM Health at Home - Hospice in Mid-Missouri. "Being able to discuss our work and who we are as persons – both strengths and weaknesses – with peers who are dealing with similar issues is priceless. The ability to see and speak with each other via our computers allows for real interaction, and this virtual capability also made it possible for me to take the course, because we don't have a CPE near where I live. I have learned so much through this class that will make me a better chaplain." 


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