Thursday, January 15, 2009

Should people be allowed to fail?

The first time I applied to rabbinical school, I was turned down. I was devastated. How could this happen, I thought? I was a person of intelligence, character and passion who had come to make a decision to dedicate his life to Torah and the Jewish people. How could anyone turn down such a person? Didn't the Jewish people need leaders? Weren't the (religious) leaders on this admissions committee I had sat in front of supposed to be kind and wise and welcoming? How could they be so cold to me, I cried to myself.

At the time I felt completely alone. But I -- especially in my work as a Clinical Pastoral Educator (a person who trains chaplains) -- have come to learn that my experience is anything but unique. Many people make a decision to commit themselves to some kind of service in ministry only to be deeply wounded when they are rejected by the religious leaders they apply to. This can be especially challenging in some of the Protestant denominations where people need to make multiple (anxiety provoking) appearances before committees before being ordained; at any of these, a person can be turned down for ordination even if they have dedicated years to studying for it. (At least for rabbinical school, there is typically only the one committee appearance -- the initial interview for admission.)

But what has really been shocking for me is to realize that not only do these rejections happen, but that some people think they are for the good. "Why shouldn't people be allowed to fail?" one senior Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) leader, said to me. "Isn't that how they learn?"

We have these kind of failures all the time in the process I am in to become fully certified as a CPE educator/supervisor. This certification process is designed very much like the kind of Protestant ordination process I described above -- we have to appear before committees multiple times. They can turn us down, putting an end to our hope for certification or setting it back months or years. (Not surprisingly, the CPE certification process was originally designed by mainline Protestants.)

I have too many times now witnessed colleagues coming back from such a failed appearance. Their pain -- their wounds -- are deep. This is not like failing to pass the law "bar" exam the first time (as devastating as that can be). When the bar slaps you with rejection it's only some impersonal test that you have to be angry at. But when a CPE committee -- a committee of clergy people with careers devoted to helping people in pain -- turns you down, it's like being slapped by a parent (or rejected by God). It is being turned down by someone who you expect to nurture you.

And, it's your very person that is being turned down. When you go before a committee like this, you are not being evaluated on how much you can recall from some body of knowledge; you are being evaluated on your very person. So, it's more than humbling to be turned down -- it's devastating.

And what really pains me is that I felt in quite a few cases that a colleague preparing to go up was not really ready. But I didn't tell them that. I withheld my opinion. This is no excuse, but in doing so I think I was acting in accordance with the "culture" (the culture of CPE) that I am in. We just don't stop people. We let them go up even if we think they're not ready.

I think the CPE certification process, as well as the culture that it springs from, is in very serious need of reform and change. We need to stop thinking of failure as a normal part of the process. If a student is not really ready to go up before a committee, their supervisor has a duty to tell them that. It's an irresponsible cop-out to hide behind saying that "people are adults and they should be allowed to learn from their failures."

While it is certainly true that learning from mistakes is at the core of the CPE educational model, this kind of mistake -- this kind of failure -- is like a person failing from the trapeze when there is no safety net below. As people of caring, we can't just stand by mute and let it happen.

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