Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The mystery of groups (in chaplaincy training)

A funny thing about Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE): almost every CPE program has a "group" component -- usually called IPR, for Interpersonal Relations Seminar -- yet nowhere in the (ACPE) standards is a specific rationale given for this. Nor is an IPR even required as part of a unit of CPE under the written standards. It's almost as though the importance of an IPR is just supposed to be "understood."

Yet, I think it's anything but obvious why chaplains, or other pastoral caregivers like clergy, need an IPR as a required part of their training. After all, IPRs are not based on anything rooted in religious or spiritual traditions. Rather, the theories underpinning most applications of IPR come from the secular field of group therapy. The names providing the theoretical underpinnings for most IRPs come from among the giants of group therapy -- Agazarian, Bion and Yalom. Why do these names stand beside those of Moses and Abraham in clergy training? Surely, a less mysterious reason than -- well, every CPE program has an IPR -- has be be given.

I hope to gain greater clarity about these issues in the coming weeks while I take an intensive three-week class at NYU in Group Dynamics. While the professor does not have to answer the question of why there are IPRs in CPE -- this class is a required class for students in counseling who may very well be called upon to lead group psychotherapy sessions themselves -- I will have this question on my mind throughout the course.

This, of course, is not the first time I have sought to address the question of why IPRs are in CPE -- every
time I run a CPE unit myself I have to explain it to my students (the slide presentation to the left is something I use for that; more thoughts on groups here). But I am grateful to have a chance for a fresh look at this question.

Up until this time I have had an "it's all about the group" approach to CPE. That is, I haven't really thought of IPR as being a very distinct part of the CPE curriculum. The entire curriculum is a group experience in my view and all the theories we have about how groups behave and develop apply to the entire program, not just to the hour or two a week of an IPR (which, I prefer to call "Open Agenda" as my first CPE supervisor did).

Today, in the first session of my NYU class, as I watched the professor work, it occurred to me that it is possible to think of IPR in a very different and more focused way than I had before -- as a distinct part of the program where the goal is to teach students enough about group process and theory that they might develop the skills to be able to run group therapy-like groups themselves.

Such a more focused approach -- one that is specific about using the IPR group as a tool for learning the dynamics of groups (as my NYU professor asks us to engage in group-therapy-like experiences together to become our own "laboratory" for the purpose of learning group dynamics) -- might make sense especially in a first unit of CPE: the standards for Level I CPE include as an outcome that students will after the unit be able to "recognize relational dynamics within group contexts." (Standard 311.5)

My own spiritual development has not involved much of group-therapy-like groups (with the exception of a few tricks I've learned from Parker Palmer). But I know that, for example, some -- like Philadelphia rabbi Ira Stone and other organizations -- have adapted the 19th century Mussar tradition, to set up modern groups -- each called a vaad/וועד -- to, in the words of Stone's web site become a "community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and
their institutions by fully integrating the values of Mussar into daily practice and daily life." Each vaad typically meets on a regular basis in a way similar to group therapy groups meet regularly -- although the focus of a vaad has a clear spiritual overlay.

Both of the books assigned for my current class are ones I already own -- a huge classic text by Yalom (the "bible of group therapy" according to my professor) and a more approachable how-to-style book called Groups: proc
ess and practice. Our professor has asked us to read the first couple of chapters of this book for tomorrow's class. Here are some of
the discussion questions she gave us for our reading:

Chapter 1


1. Why do we use groups for counseling purposes? Can you distinguish between counseling in groups and doing group counseling?


2. What is the difference between group process and techniques?


3. Why is a theory about groups necessary for working with groups?


4. What are the four different kinds of groups discussed in this chapter. Please be prepared to give examples of these kinds of groups – from your own experience or from other's experience.


5. Regarding multiculturalism in group work – what is the definition of culture? How is culture likely to be relevant in groups?


Chapter 2


1. What are you thoughts about the list of personal characteristics of the effective group leader listed on pages 30-38?


2. Which of the group leadership skills presented on pages 38-46 seem most important to you and why?


Chapter 4


1. Please be prepared to describe the process of forming a group described in this chapter. What do you think about it? Any issues left out? What are likely to be the hardest struggles in forming a group? Any ideas about how to respond to these struggles?


I look forward to learning more about group theory in the coming weeks, and to having more opportunity to reflect on my own group practice. I doubt I will abandon my "it's all about the group" approach. But I may come to a different understanding about how to run the IPR/Open Agenda portion of my programs. And I hope to be able to become more clear in explaining to my students why we have an Open Agenda portion of a CPE program. It's just not good enough to just leave it a "mystery."

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