Wednesday, April 25, 2012 12:00 AM

New spiritual 'basic training' for hospital chaplains

Dave DiPalma, chaplain intern for Community Medical Centers isn’t afraid of silence.

“Sometimes the most meaningful things happen, when I say something, and then the patient says something, and I’m just kind of waiting to see what they want to talk about next.”

This is just one of the skills he’s learning thanks to his enrollment in Clinical Pastoral Education classes.

Community chaplain intern Dave DiPalma uses the advanced skills he's learning in the clinical pastoral education course as he speaks with Community Regional patient Aleyda Walsh.

DiPalma is among the next generation of Valley chaplains being trained in Fresno through Clinical Pastoral Education of Central California (CPECC) – an accredited non-profit training center for central California started by Community and partner hospitals and faith groups.

It serves the spiritual ministry training needs for those working in hospitals, churches, prisons, public service agencies, jails and schools. The course is a satellite program through Stanford University and is accredited by the Association of Professional Chaplains.

“The course is intense,” DiPalma said. “I typically spend three days a week at Community visiting patients, then about eight hours a week with the other chaplains.”

Previously, chaplains from the Valley seeking clinical pastoral education had to travel to Los Angeles or the Bay area to receive this type of graduate level education and training. CPECCs goal is for every hospital and service agency in central California to have qualified and accredited spiritual counselors and chaplains.

Rev. Grimaldo Enriquez, chaplain services supervisor for Community Medical Centers said, “It’s a unique program in the sense that we are a collaborative of organizations and hospitals that sought to establish the program here in the Valley.”

The classes began in February with a full class of six students selected from partner hospitals. Rev. Grimaldo said it’s the basic training a person would need to be a competent chaplain – combining the theoretical knowledge of seminary with the clinical experience that applies to the human experience of suffering. The course runs 18 to 24 months depending upon whether a student is full or part-time. Students receive four units for the course, each unit consisting of 400 hours, 300 hours of clinical experience, plus 100 hours of instruction and group work.

“It’s going to benefit the community tremendously to have people who are trained to provide spiritual care in a multicultural setting – open minded, nonjudgmental, and focused on the spiritual needs of the person to whom they are ministering,” Rev. Enriquez said.

DiPalma said the teaching model is based on taking action and reflection. “It’s always about the patient. It’s never about the chaplain. What we learn is don’t assume anything. Let the patient tell you what this condition or illness means to them and then we try to support them.”

He feels that Community is an excellent place to learn because of the diversity of patients, the various needs he sees as a chaplain and because of the nursing and medical staff.

According to DiPalma, chaplains are very, very fortunate: “We get to be with people at extreme times in their lives – in extreme joy like childbirth or extreme sorrow like death. There’s something about sharing those moments with the patient that makes it all worthwhile.”

Jennifer Avila-Allen reported this story. She can be reached at