This past summer, SFTS students had the opportunity to understand the dynamics and issues of pastoral care on a global level.
Led by Rev. Laurie Garrett-Cobbina, SFTS Shaw Family Chair for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a six-week intensive course in CPE was offered in a groundbreaking partnership with Spiritan University. SFTS Adjunct Faculty Dr. Michael Cobbina and Rev. Vanessa Hawkins also helped teach the course, which was the first fully accredited Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) course in Ghana.
For the SFTS students, the course was an opportunity to learn in a broader context while developing international relationships. Sabrina Bolus, who is nearing completion of her CPE program, recognized the value of being able to gain experience in a cross-cultural, ecumenical, interfaith, and cross-language environment. “The strength of the SFTS CPE program is its flexibility and exposure to different types of ministry,” she said. “I jumped at the chance to immerse in another culture clinically.”
“Spiritan University was interested in increasing the pastoral care competence of their seminarians and clergymen,” said Garrett-Cobbina. “Their care is generally very guided by their rituals and sacraments, so they wanted to bring their listening and caring skills to a higher level.” All the Ghanaian students were priests.
Garrett-Cobbina said the U.S. students brought an element of gender diversity because the Ghanaian students’ community is almost all male. “A deep bond and wonderful group dynamic formed, allowing the women to learn how to claim their pastoral authority and knowledge, but also there was a differentiation that happened that’s very healthy,” she said.
SFTS alumna Min-Hee Kim reflected on her personal growth, saying, “As a woman, Korean, and future pastor in PC(USA), it was like surfing while I learned to cope with diverse dynamics within both my colleagues and me.”
A Typical Day
Two days in the intensive curriculum were devoted solely to seminars from 8:00am to 6:00pm. On the other two days, students were at clinical sites such as hospitals or in their parish.
Some of the students completed their hands-on fieldwork at St. Michael’s Hospital, bringing with them an air of excitement and sparking interest in the program. In fact, a hospital physician, who is also a pastor, asked Garrett-Cobbina, “Can anyone do CPE?”
Although students had individual supervision by Garrett-Cobbina, the program’s intensity and length warranted other outlets. “Chaplain Michael Cobbina added a laser focus on clinical competence,” said Garrett-Cobbina. Because of his expertise the students could listen to him in a different way. Hawkins provided spiritual direction, which helped the students process and go deeper into critical theological reflection.
“The added spiritual direction was a wonderful component, and if I could, I would have it with every program. I learned something about enhancing the whole CPE experience,” Garrett-Cobbina said.
Allowing the ‘Sacred’
Twice a week, at the end of the 10-hour seminar days, the group met for what Garrett-Cobbina refers to as “sacred time,” which taught students how to facilitate a sacred experience within a diverse group of people, as many will serve in interfaith settings. “I think it’s an important skill to learn as a pastoral care provider, as a pastor, as a chaplain,” she said.
In the 20-minute sessions, students were encouraged to be creative, artistic, and innovative. One student used incense, the imagery of fire smoke and the modality of smell to lead his group through prayer. As Garrett-Cobbina says, “People do all kinds of really interesting things when they can’t do what they always do.”
After exhausting days, Garrett-Cobbina emphasized the significance of having a moment to rest and connect with the holy. “It was really important,” she said, “to end the day with some connection back to why we were there.”
Reflecting upon the best part of her experience, Kim said, “I feel my capacity to be able to glance at one’s place of existence in the ‘whole’ has been reinforced by holding myself fully in the process of change and acceptance. Of course, this has become my greatest asset in my future pastoral care.”
“No matter what, there was such a graciousness and spirituality that is so prevalent in Ghana,” Bolus said. “I learned that by appreciating the different expressions of spirituality, I was able to grow.” In her future pastoral care, she will take away a deep remembrance of the permeating feeling of the Divine presence in Ghana. Describing how some residents name their taxicabs and stores after the Lord, Bolus summarized, “I felt like I was in a spiritual heaven.”
Bolus believes Garrett-Cobbina made history with this association of professional chaplains doing this type of work abroad. “She is able to help you bring out your spiritual gifts as a person and as a chaplain. She put together a fabulous program.”
Kim echoed this sentiment, saying, “Laurie offered a place to joyfully play with diverse cultural waves in a multi-cultural CPE environment, taking care of each of the group members.”
A Sumptuous Experience
When asked what she will take away from the experience in Ghana, Garrett-Cobbina said, “Spiritan wanted to do it as much as I did. ACPE invested in it. I was really moved that I was in partnership with other people who wanted it to happen as much as I did.”
Remarking upon what the setting of Ghana added to the experience and on the Ghanaian people, Garrett-Cobbina said, “My favorite thing was how beautiful everybody was. The clothing, the way people dressed. A woman ‘trader’ at the market selling mangoes, she looked beautiful to me.”
“The sumptuousness of the visual experience; it almost vibrated. That’s something I still carry with me.”
This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Chimes magazine.