Thursday, February 24, 2011

Loaded Questions

Loaded Questions.  No, I am not referring to the board game which often brings my closest friends to a whole new level of awkward awareness.  This blog is about a different ‘loaded question.’  At work, I am often asked “What is a chaplain?”  Simple enough, right?  We are clergy who care for those outside of the church setting.  Both in the hospital and military, chaplains provide support when bad news is pronounced.  We go see patients who are angry or difficult to manage.  In our hospital, we respond to traumas.  We sit with families when their loved one’s heart stops beating.  We provide a ritual of life and blessing to a mother and father whose baby died before given a chance at life.  We meet with those of other faith traditions and those with no faith tradition, and listen without imposition.  Fifteen letters…four words…one loaded question.  What is a chaplain?

Let me share with you a quick story that caused me to think about this question more.  Today at work, I was talking to a male nurse about a patient and as the conversation ended and I was walking away, he asked aloud, “What is a chaplain exactly?”  I responded, “We are like pastors for the hospital, here to care for patients and staff.”  He said, “Well, you just don’t…look like a chaplain.”  (Believe me when I say I get told this almost every day, often multiple times a day – apparently I look “young” for a chaplain, or so I have been told.)  One of the boisterous female nurses on the floor shouted to the male nurse, “What, you’ve never seen a young cute chaplain?!  You expecting Quasimodo or something??”  She began to laugh loudly with one of the other nurses.  We all began laughing.  The nurse then began to fan herself and dramatically said, “Ohhh Lord, I gotta fan myself.  I gotta behave – I’m in the presence of a chaplain!”  A third nurse shouted jokingly to her, “Yeah, especially with that illegitimate child of yours!!”  To which the boisterous nurse playfully shouted back, “You think I’m bad?  You’re the lesbian!”  Laughter erupted out of all of our mouths.  We couldn’t stop.  I felt like we were all suddenly standing in the confessional booth instead of a nursing unit.  They somewhat jokingly apologized to me for their “bad behavior,” and I told them they had no reason to apologize, especially because they really had made my day with their comments.  I think that story paints a beautiful picture: What is a chaplain?  What caused these hilarious staff members to say the things they said to me?

I think about the times I am in the ER and purposely turn by badge around backwards when I go to meet families.  I do this because often times, people think the word “chaplain” means “I am coming to tell you your loved one has died.” (Just as FYI, at least at our hospital, we never tell someone their loved one has died – the physician does).  For some people, the word “chaplain” means “I better behave around my co-workers when the chaplain’s here because a lightning bolt might come through the ceiling.”  (Do people really think we have the power to produce an electric discharge on the universe?)  For other people, it means “You are a safe environment in which I can talk about my situation, my fears, my family, my diagnosis – because you do not know me and you will not judge me.”  And still for others, it means “You are coming to evangelize me and I don’t want to hear it.” (Another common misconception: we do not evangelize at the hospital – chaplains are taught to listen empathically and use the patient’s story as the jumping off point to move towards deeper meaning).

I guess the underlying question is: What do people really mean when they ask what a chaplain is?  Are they asking about who a chaplain is?  Who I am?  What we do?  I’m continuing to ponder this question.  Here are some of the funnier things I have heard…

One day, a patient was angry at the world so when I walked in his room, he ripped off his hospital gown, threw it at me and shouted, “Make my nurse get me a new gown, I pissed myself!”  What is a chaplain?

Once a patient asked if he could pray for me since he knew his soul was saved.  What is a chaplain?

Someone once asked how much they should tip for my chaplain visit.  What is a chaplain?

More than once a patient has asked me, “Did someone tell you to come see me because I don’t go to church anymore?”  What is a chaplain?

Also more than once, I have walked in a room and upon seeing my badge, the patient or a family member has burst into tears.  What is a chaplain?

Today an older male patient (who already had given me the heebie jeebies on a prior visit) asked me if I would help work out a kink in his back with a quick back rub.  What is a chaplain?

Perhaps there isn’t one hard and fast answer to this question.  Perhaps the answer to this question is one that will take many years of reflection to answer. I guess I’ll have to get back to you with my answer.  And you know that's hard for me since I like to have answers to things right away...but I shall wait.

 And just to clarify, I didn’t give the old man a back rub.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What happens when God calls you to be a chaplain?

I have mentioned this in prior blog posts, but as a reminder, I never in my life felt a call to hospital chaplaincy.  The closest I got to hospital visitations as a child was sitting in the hospital lobby or the gift shop while my dad went and visited with patients.  I do remember going to a hospice house (the only time I’ve been to one) to visit one of our long-time church members, Peggy Spaulding.  I was probably around 10 years old.  I walked in the room and saw someone who looked nothing like the Peggy I remembered – it was then that I learned what cancer can do to someone.  We hugged her goodbye.  She died the next day.

Once I felt my calling into ministry, I knew…or rather I thought…that God was preparing me for parish ministry.  I thought I would serve a church and serve as either a solo pastor or one of the pastors on staff.  What I found on the flip side of seminary was a calling as deep and as rich as my calling to go to seminary: my calling to become a chaplain.  A chaplain?!?!  Seriously, God??  Why me?  I don’t like blood, death, or the smell/look of hospitals.

I faced my fears and through the beautifully woven grace of God, I began to become more comfortable in ministering to those around end of life issues, traumas, code blues, the death of adults, children, babies...  I also stopped being afraid of walking into the unknown with every hospital visit.  I now become energized by the unknown: who will be in the room, what stories will they have to share, will they wonder who I am and why I am a chaplain, will they become vulnerable in our conversation and be willing to dig deep, how will I minister to them strictly based off their experience, how will God make Godself known to them in the brief, sometimes only, encounter I have with them?

Friends, believe me when I say this: at this point in my life, I feel called to be a chaplain.  It is a work that brings my heart and mind to life and seeks to resonate with the broken and grieving hearts of others.  It is indeed an art more than a science.  It means taking risks.  It means sitting in the silence of the conversation when the untrained mind may be telling you to speak up.  It means sticking with those patients who initially want to throw you out of the room.  It means going to work every day with the understanding that you have no idea what you will see, hear, smell, touch, or experience.  It  means moving beyond the small talk into deep, meaningful curiosities about life, death, pain, suffering, denial, family dynamics, faith, emptiness, etc.

Why do I share all of this with you?  The question now comes into play of whether or not I need to serve as a pastor in order to become a more ‘well-rounded’ chaplain, particularly a chaplain supervisor.  I listened to and wrestled with others in our department on the question of whether serving as a chaplain, particularly on the supervisory route, is done best when first serving as a parish minister.  (I want to be very clear that I am not trying to say that anyone I spoke to about this is right/wrong, but I think the question is one with which I/we should struggle.)  I have to question the model that chaplaincy is only a calling that can come when one becomes done, or even burnt out, with the church.  What if you feel called to be a chaplain at 26 instead of at 62?  I know that serving in a church, whether I ended up enjoying it or not, could teach me a lot about life.  But can’t chaplaincy do a similar thing?  I am an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament - it just might look a little less “traditional” than being a parish minister.

Is the pulpit the only bridge to become a well-rounded chaplain, particularly within the supervisory role?  Or is that bridge something we have created by our own experiences?  Am I being too na├»ve in thinking that I can succeed in this work and help other chaplains grow in their experience without ever ‘officially’ serving as a parish minister?  How do we respect the experience of those older and more experienced than us without ignoring or denying our own experience?  I do not know the answers to any of these things, but I am definitely exploring them right now and covet your insights.

The question still remains: What happens when God calls you to be a chaplain?  I’ll have to get back to you on that...but know that it’s been a pretty amazing journey thus far.