Let me explain. As Kathleen Pakos-Rimer points out in her excellent 2005 study of a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, our students know from the moment they look at a standard CPE application that self-awareness is an important value in CPE. The application, for example, asks them to write essays that “provide a reasonably full account of your life, including important events, relationships with people who have been significant to you, and the impact these events have had on your development” (pg. 48). And, the student, if they should read our official, hoped-for educational outcomes for CPE, might even learn that we in CPE think that the reason it's important to build this self-awareness is so we can understand how our background and key life events affect how we act with patients and other suffering people. But what the student could never figure out from the written standards alone is why we think building self-awareness – and being able to share that awareness in the moment with others – is so important that we spend more time on it in the seminar room than anything else, and we evaluate students on it (we call it, “being present” or “being engaged”) when they appear before committees. This is where parallel process comes in.
On the broadest level, parallel process simply means that what happens in one relationship in a person's life gets reflected somehow in other relationships. Think of the old story about the man who gets yelled at by his boss and then comes home and kicks his dog – the abuse in the boss-man relationship gets acted out in the dog-man relationship. This doesn't just happen with bad things like abuse. As Care Theorist Nel Noddings argues, children who are treated in a truly caring way by their teachers and parents tend to grow up to be caring and moral adults.
In CPE, we use parallel process to assess some of the pretty demanding ideas we have about how our chaplain-students should act with patients. That is, supervisor-educators like myself want our students to take on the incredibly demanding task of forming deep relationships with patients amid the challenges of encountering the scariness of death, suffering and pain, as well as the challenge of having limited time to form those relationships. And we think that some of the toughest issues students have with forming relationships with patients will also show up somehow in their interactions with us, their teachers – that's parallel process.
It's also something that might be called part of a hidden curriculum of CPE – things about our educational process that our students might not be fully aware are a part of this game. That's unfortunate because students who feel like we're involving them in a game where they don't know the rules are likely to feel that they are being treated unfairly and that the education we are offering is not serving their interests. Worse, they may experience us as a bunch of intrusive emotion voyeurs – who just want them to share the most intimate details of their lives because it entertains us.
So, it's imperative that we raise our awareness about what parts of the CPE curriculum might seem hidden to students – and to find ways to explain those things so they are no longer hidden (assuming, that is, that we decided we want to keep these once-hidden things as part of CPE).
Parallel process may be one of those hidden things. But, unfortunately, it's not the only one. Pakos-Rimer identifies five implicit – or hidden – outcomes in CPE including the “ability to engage the person in the patient without violating professional boundaries.” But what does that mean to engage the person? We who are steeped in the hidden curriculum of CPE have a fairly well developed idea about what engagement means, but do our students share this? When, a few years back, I was sitting before a committee of veteran supervisors for an hour asking to be allowed to begin the first steps towards joining their ranks, I was nervous for many minutes and was desperately trying to give them the 'right' answers to their questions. If I had stayed in that nervous, desperately-trying-to-say-the-right-thing state, the committee would have failed me for sure. But, then came a time of dramatic shift – I started to talk about one of the greatest fears in my life and tears came to my eyes.
In another field, showing emotion in an interview-type setting like this probably would have been a disaster for me. But in CPE we value engagement in an interview (because we understand that good pastoral care is about true engagement and because the doctrine of parellel process tells us that if a person can engage before a committee he or she can also probably engage with a patient). I knew about that value when I was before the committee shedding tears, so I realized in that moment that I had moved from failing this committee appearance to succeeding at it – not because of the tears alone, but because I was no longer afraid of what these people would think of me. I already then knew enough about the CPE hidden curriculum to know how the committee would experience this – they would see my as engaging them with my genuine person.
Parallel process is why this makes sense – if you believe in parallel process than what the committee saw happen between me and them in that moment tells them something about what I was capable of being with students and with patients. That is, if I could show them I could experience intense emotion with them – and yet still be able to retain enough control and self-awareness to be able to rationally discuss with them what was happening for me – than that indicated I could also experience intense emotion with patients, but still have the control of a skilled professional. (This is closely related to something that Pakos-Rimer calls well-bounded empathy – where you can, to paraphrase Carl Rogers, enter the experience of the patient as if you are in his or her shoes, without ever forgetting the as if condition.)
Of course – as many a student has complained – sitting with a patient is not the same thing as sitting before a committee of veteran professionals. But we supervisors in CPE – rightly so in my view – believe that the basic issues of entering into and maintaining relationships will be largely the same wherever the student finds opportunity for relationship. And, most importantly, we believe that the essence of pastoral care is about entering into relationship with the person we are caring for – genuine relationships that are deepened because we are able to share some fundamental part of our core being amid them.
But it's not enough to just tell the student that this is just the way it is and get used to it. We have to explain for them as best we can how we believe our educational process works. And before we can do that, we need to be able to be able to explain it to ourselves. Here is the opportunity – and need – for research. We need to define our terms in a disciplined way. Pakos-Rimer has contributed to this by exploring, for example, what we mean by empathy and why we might think it needs to be well-bounded. Another excellent work – Judith Ragsdale's 2008 study of the education of CPE supervisors like myself – made another important contribution: providing support for why a program of continuous spiritual and professional self-examination might be particularly important in our field.
And other terms that we professionals in the field throw around as if they are clear need to be more carefully defined (like integration). We also have expectations that may be culturally determined – like our expectation that chaplain-students develop a greater sense of autonomy and personal/professional authority so that they are more able to engage in what we call self-supervision, self-assessment and self-care. When students come before us for evaluation, we expect them to be able to demonstrate a strong sense of their own authority – and to be able to even take charge with us in discussing their learning. We might even expect them to resist being interviewed – to resist just providing answers to our questions – and to, instead, engage us by sharing their own deepest, unanswered questions about their own work and to try and use us as resources in wondering about how those questions might be answered.
Not everyone believes that all the self-examination CPE professionals engage in is actually necessary to become a skilled spiritual caregiver. I am not sure that everyone in the Jewish Healing movement, for example, believes in the necessity of the level of self-examination we do. And there are alternative training models in the Jewish world, certainly, for students to learn pastoral care. At Yeshiva University, for example, there is an emphasis on what is called positive psychology – an approach that does not call for either the chaplain or the patient to explore their emotional and spiritual wounds. If CPE is to remain the dominant spiritual-care training model we must answer the questions and challenges raised by these alternative approaches and perhaps, even, adopt aspects of them.
I believe that we can meet these challenges. And parallel process is at the core of what we have to contribute to the world of spiritual care and beyond. By forming model relationships of true caring and compassion with ourselves and our students, we can – through a giant chain of parallel processes – affect nothing less than every other relationship in the world. Like ripples in a pond from a single pebble, we can spread peace and wholeness one relationship at a time. This is what we hope to prepare our chaplain students for – not just so they can learn to minister to individual patients one at a time, but so that they can become forces for greater caring and compassion everywhere they go.
May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that we shall all know peace, soon, speedily and in our days.
Parallel process, by the way, is not an invention of pastoral educators – but, rather, something we borrowed from the filed of psychoanalysis. One interesting question is why the concept of parallel process has remained so central in the field of pastoral education while it has become less important in the field of pscychoanalysis.