From There and Back Again: The 5 Insights I Learned about the Ordained Ministry in Chaplaincy
By Rich Houser
September 10th, 2014
Hollywood gets chaplaincy all wrong, like so many other professions. We see Chaplains, like those in a Grey’s Anatomy episode, show up only for disasters, or sitting among the soon-to-drown on the Titanic, but we don’t see anything of the day to day.
Those in traditional church ministry, who haven’t been in the crosshairs, and those who merely experienced it in seminary in their one unit of C.P.E., might not have a true flavor of chaplaincy either. I know my one summer at Grandview Medical Center in Jasper, TN, with an unfortunate geographical positioning right on Interstate 24 and a statistically improbable number of tragic automobile accidents, didn’t give me a very accurate portrayal. As one who used to be a chaplain, I learned on the job that it is far less mysterious or heroic than any fictional portrayal or brief foray into chaplaincy would lead you to believe, which I feel is a good thing. In a hospital, you’re seeing people at their most vulnerable/drugged/emotional state all of the time. So allow me to tell you the five insights I learned from my time in chaplaincy…
- Your ministry in hospitals is extremely practical, creative, and concrete
You probably wouldn’t expect to find the aforementioned adjectives in the same sentence. But they exactly describe what chaplaincy is. Let me explain. What Clinical Pastoral Education units will never make abundantly clear is that your vocation in the hospital is to be on the floors you are assigned to as much as possible during the day. Instead of people coming to you for solace, counsel, and prayer, the majority of your ministry is going to visit people who don’t even know that you will be valuable to them. This is in contrast to a church where people come visit you with their issues of a pastoral nature (this is not always the case, but in a majority of instances).
Practically speaking, the best training to aid you in allowing people to feel comfortable enough around you to share their deepest thoughts and issues with you, a stranger, is time spent on those very floors assigned to you, talking to staff, building relationships, and visiting patients. I know that sounds simple and less mysterious but your comfort level usually determines how people respond to you.
In a sense the practicality also gives you skills to be flexible in conversation and allows you to be very creative in your time with people. What C.P.E. does really well is that it teaches you that there is no set way of speaking with people in vulnerable situations. Since every patient, family, staff, doctor, and every other soul who finds himself or herself in the hospital is very different from the next, you have to be creative in your conversation and methods and find the conversational style that will make you comfortable. Essentially, you create your own style. No textbook can teach you that. Not knowing what will come from any given interaction means you really can’t prepare for it.
Even though you might not hear it in conversations with other chaplains, numbers really do matter, but not in the way you think. If you visit 30 people on an Intensive Care floor during one day, you really don’t have a clue about what you are doing and are actually doing a real disservice to chaplaincy and ministry in general. People need you to listen, especially in life and death situations, and speeding through a visit is extremely disingenuous. In my two hours on an ICU floor I would possibly visit 5 patients and their families because there were serious issues such as level of care, matters of faith and life after death (people ask about that), as well as stress points in the situation that needed to be expressed to me.
Numbers do matter to the hospital management because they deal with very practical monetary aspects and limited resources, so you can’t sit in your office and not be valuable to them.
- You know immediately you are relieving suffering
Here is one of the most joyous and blessed aspects of ministry that brought many of us in the ministry to the vocation of chaplaincy in the first place. Following our time of listening, emotional connection, and when asked, prayer, people do say, “thank you for listening.” They also fall back to sleep after a visit or a prayer, another great byproduct of our ministry. They hold your hand and tears come out of their eyes and you know that you did relieve suffering in that moment.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you are not skilled and practiced in this you can do some harm and cause suffering if you don’t do lesson number three….
- You leave your religious differences at the front door of the hospital – because you must!
This is huge. Probably second in your learning behind becoming a non-anxious presence in chaplaincy. First, you need to know your beliefs and how they influence your life and whether you espouse them in regular conversation. But you must not espouse your beliefs around patients and families that they are the “right way.” You might say that it is foundational to your faith to evangelize or proselytize to those around you, including those who are hurting the most, especially patients. But there is a key fundamental difference in the population you are ministering to versus a church. These people don’t have a “fair fight” to your advances because they are extremely vulnerable in their thinking and possess a very real belief that they might die. Most of us who are not patients in a hospital are what I like to classify as having “semi-normal” lives. That is, we do not believe we will die today or tomorrow or next week. We know we will eventually die, but not soon. That makes a congregation of hospital patients different from church members, people on the street, your family, friends, or even strangers. Thus, imposing your own beliefs on hospital patients is not ethical and it’s not fair.
The other aspect that is different is people don’t come to a hospital to receive pastoral care, they come to get medical care primarily. While the work on and the healing of the spirit might be just as crucial to true wellness as medical procedures and treatments, it simply isn’t what the patient signed up for. At a church, parishioners come, primarily, for spiritual care. This is a stark difference.
- Transition, transition, transition: short-term relationships abound
This is not something I really noticed until I had been in chaplaincy for a couple of years. It is really important and affects you in ways you wouldn’t imagine. In most jobs, you experience far less transition. Your co-workers generally stay the same, church members on the whole don’t differ from week to week, and your day to day work doesn’t vary quite so much. In a hospital there is so much transition, and so many short term relationships, that you don’t realize what effect it can have. On a very human side, it’s harder to truly care about people who won’t give you care right back and who possibly won’t be there tomorrow, either due to discharge or – and this is a hard reality to face – death. There is very little closure for you because you won’t get to know how patients and their families are doing after their discharge from the hospital. Your incentives are different and it’s important to figure out your motives long-term. I suppose that leads me nicely to my final point:
- Need for your own self-care
This is the biggest. Self-care is needed more in chaplaincy because it is extremely emotional work. It will stretch your faith, your ideas, your health, and your being in ways you could not have imagined. It will remind you more often than you’d like of your own fears of death. It’s a pretty extreme ministry and there is so much need for self-care. Unfortunately, there is not much self-care built-in to your schedule, because in my experience you start accruing time off through a Paid Time Off procedure instead of a built-in amount of time like some other professions. This lack of time away can put a strain on you and your family and is definitely something to consider when pursuing chaplaincy long-term. For me, I wanted to spend more time with my infant child and I knew that I was not going to get to do that in the short-term.
I have been blessed to be an Episcopal priest who has lived out ordained ministry in a parochial (church) setting, two hospital settings, and now I find myself back in the church setting. I am glad I pursued chaplaincy and I know in my heart that it has been formational to my ordained life. So, in turn, when you meet a chaplain, let them know how thankful you are to have them around.
Rich Houser is currently the Associate Rector for Parish Life at Trinity Episcopal Church in Houston, TX. He served as a Staff Chaplain at C.H.I. St. Luke’s/ Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in 2013-2014. He is a Provisional Board Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains. He was a Chaplain Resident at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in 2012. Rich began his ordained ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Cypress, TX serving as the Associate Vicar in charge of Youth, College, and Young Adult Ministries. He graduated from the University of the South, School of Theology receiving a Master of Divinity in May of 2009. Before seminary, Father Rich served two congregations as Youth Minister at Grace Episcopal Church, Alvin and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, Lufkin. Rich grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. Rich attended Texas A&M University, College Station, graduating in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Minor in Business. Rich was ordained Priest in January of 2010.