View from the Road: Just Beyond Herself - The Vision of an ACPE Entrepreneur
The beginning of David Whyte’s poem, Just Beyond Yourself, seems to describe ever so accurately the journey of Carolyn Barksdale and the evolution of her program at RC Freedom Ministries:
By Wayne Menking, Director of Community, Practice, and Member Development | July 8, 2019
Just beyond yourself.
It’s where you need to be.
Half a step into self-forgetting; and the rest restored by what you’ll meet.
There is a road always beckoning.
Not long after she left her career in the US Air Force Medical Corps, Carolyn entered a CPE residency at Baptist Health in San Antonio, Texas. She had not yet been to seminary, but as she describes it, she was both transformed and “hooked” by her experience. Her transforming and life changing experience was something that she knew she wanted to impart to others in ministry, particularly parish pastors who are not able to take time off to do full-time units of CPE. In her words, “Everyone involved in ministry needs CPE.” Upon completing her residency at Baptist, she entered Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, and after graduation she entered supervisory training. She was certified as an ACPE Certified Supervisor in February 2004. She followed Jim Berbiglia as the director of CPE at what was then Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center in San Antonio, the US Air Force’s main hospital, providing training and education for that service branch’s chaplains. However, the road she envisioned of creating a program that would offer CPE training to parish pastors continued to beckon. And just as Whyte’s poem suggests, Carolyn knew it was the road she had to follow.
While she was still at Wilford Hall, Carolyn and her husband, Ralph, created the CPE program at RC Freedom Ministries. Initially they envisioned a satellite arrangement with what was then the Ecumenical Center in San Antonio, but upon the recommendation of the regional accreditation committee, they ventured out to create a free-standing CPE program. And so it was launched, initially offering extended units of CPE. As one can imagine, creating a free-standing CPE program from nothing and with no institutional support is a significant challenge. The first challenge was finding space that would house the program and offer ample room for seminars. Fortunately, Oblate Seminary in San Antonio extended some of its space and that’s where the program conducted its initial extended units. A second challenge was financial. With no institutional support nor any other financial backing, all overhead was paid by students’ tuition. As she was still directing the Air Force program in these early years, she was limited in the number of students she could take into RC Freedom’s programs. Carolyn recalls that for the first eight years of the program’s existence she received no salary or compensation. Although RC Freedom still offers face-to-face extended units for students in the San Antonio area, it is her online CPE program that has gained traction and is now recognized as an exemplary distance learning model for clinical pastoral education. All of the online programs that she offers begin with a face-to-face retreat that is held in San Antonio. During this retreat, students are oriented to the program and the group begins the forming work that propels it into the unit, all of which will be online. Each unit ends with a closing and graduation retreat in San Antonio.
Doing CPE online has presented other challenges as well. Carolyn notes that a constant challenge is finding Certified Educators who know how to do online CPE and are available to help her meet the programs growing demands. In addition, finding preceptors and doing the required administrative work to establish relationships with their clinical sights is also a challenge. Yet to hear Carolyn talk about it, the program’s rewards and successes have more than outweighed the challenges.
When I asked what has surprised her the most, she responded without hesitation: “I have been surprised at how much demand there is for what we offer, and the students’ readiness to enter this program, even with its very high tuition.” RC Freedom charges about $2,400 for one online unit of training. No one has declined to participate in her program because of the tuition! Between January and May of 2019, RC Freedom Ministries had a combined total of 27 students participate in its programs; between August and December it will have an additional 29 students. But Carolyn does not measure the success of her program solely by its numbers, although these are important. Like most of us, she measures the success by the learning and growth she sees in her students as well as their evaluations of the program when they have completed a unit. In and through all of that she knows the instinct she had after her first unit of training – every person involved in ministry needs CPE – has been correct.
I asked Carolyn what others in more traditional and institutional settings might learn from her journey and experience. Citing the familiar line from the movie Field of Dreams, she immediately said: “If you build it, they will come.” This is not a trite phrase for Carolyn, nor one intended to suggest that following one’s vision is easy or even leads to success. But she does want others to hear how important it is to trust one’s self, what is in one’s heart, and the road that is beckoning to be followed. For Carolyn this is not just a matter of self-satisfaction or gratification. It is a matter of how others will benefit and be helped in their ministry development. As she noted: “If RC Freedom had not come into existence, there are people who would not have been able to have CPE.” Thanks to Carolyn, we are all learning about doing this holy work of spiritual care and education in some new and different ways!
As David Whyte observes, there’s always a road beckoning, and when it’s followed, even when it is unknown, we are restored by what we meet!