Field assignments offer a different kind of learning

This month, I got big news from my seminary. I received my field education assignment for next year. In my denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), every Master of Divinity student is required to serve as an apprentice pastor in a church for a year before graduation. Starting in August, I’m going to be working and learning in a church in the Chicago area, and I’m really excited.

I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about different types of field education that seminaries offer and why they matter. Of course, every denomination is going to be different, but some styles of hands-on learning are standard across most traditions.

I’m a big fan of learning by doing. For those of us who hope to become church leaders of some variety, the only way to truly know what’s coming in the future is to practice it now. I don’t mean to demean classroom learning. Reading books and listening to lectures is crucial, too—you can learn from the wisdom of people who live thousands of miles (or thousands of years earlier) than you without leaving your school. What needs to go hand-in-hand with that, though, is fieldwork.

Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, is a widespread opportunity available at many divinity schools and seminaries. Like the name suggests, they take place in clinical environments, like hospitals, drug rehabilitation centers, or nursing homes. Students work as junior chaplains who visit patients, respond to pages from medical staff, and meet in groups to share their experiences and feelings.

Students have the chance to sign up for summer units, which are typically three months long, or extended units, which are part-time or full-time and may be spread out for the length of a semester during the school year. For those with previous CPE experience, year-long residencies can help be a transition into a professional chaplain work.

CPE is intended to be an intense but highly educational experience, one where students learn to embody the much-repeated phrase “non-anxious, non-judgmental.” Personally, CPE was one of the most transformative experiences I have had so far while earning my Master of Divinity.

Everyone can benefit from CPE, but not everyone wants to work permanently in this type of environment. That’s why many schools provide the chance (or requirement!) to work in a church context. They may call it ministry-in-context, contextual education, etc. Much like learning to ride a bike, the idea is that students will start their own ministry with training wheels on, with growing independence and responsibilities over time.

Some institutions, like mine, ask that students continue this work toward the end of their degree programs as full-time interns. That’s what I’ll be transitioning into at the start of this fall. I’m looking forward to the change of pace. After all, what is theological education if not different and challenging?