A Most Reluctant Prophet


This week is a time set aside by organizations and individuals around the world as Pastoral Care Week, to recognize the contributions of professional chaplains and pastoral counselors.  Each year, a different aspect of pastoral care is brought to light with the annual theme.  This year’s theme is “Prophetic Voice.”  I have to say, this is not my favorite.  Being a prophetic voice — a truthteller — is one of the most anxiety-producing parts of being a chaplain for me.  I can listen all day long.  I can be a supportive, non-judgmental presence.  I can celebrate diversity of beliefs.  I can sit in silence with the dying.  No problem!  But speaking truth, even getting confrontational?  That’s something else entirely.  I have had to learn to do it, and it is still not easy.

Sometimes my prophetic voice is needed when a family is having a hard time facing the reality of a diagnosis.  When doctors have done all they can, and the family cannot accept that, I try as gently as possible to prepare them for the worst.  That may mean asking difficult questions, or even challenging their assurances of miraculous healing.  It might seem cruel, but at times it is necessary to allow a more peaceful goodbye for the patient and a healthier beginning of the grief process for loved ones.  Other times being a prophet means telling a doctor that her patient needs his friends in the room with him right now, even though it isn’t usually done this way; or asking the coroner to consider whether an autopsy is absolutely necessary — even though it is policy under certain circumstances — in the case of a patient whose family’s religious beliefs forbid tampering with the body.

Sometimes, it is my job to be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, and the only answer I get out there is the sound of the wind.  I feel almost as crazy as John the Baptist, and maybe I am.  When a patient can’t get the treatment he needs — for various reasons I can’t detail here — all I can do is join with his family, friends, and medical care team in saying, “This is wrong.”  To anyone who will listen, as high up the ladder of power as I can get, I’ll say, “This is wrong.  This is wrong.”  And at the end of the day, nothing changes.  I get a speech about why things must be this way, and I cry with the patient and all those who care about him.

I don’t like being a prophet.  I suppose no one really does.  The biblical ones certainly didn’t.  It’s not a job you choose; it’s one for which you are chosen.  The truth has sharp edges, and it’s just as likely to hurt the one wielding it as the one at whom it’s being pointed.  If my voice shakes as I confront the family of a dying patient with their reality, it’s because I am terrified by the reality that I will one day be where they are.  I will watch the ones I love die, and I too will die.  If I have trouble speaking truth to those in authority, it’s because I still feel powerless, too timid to claim the pastoral authority and professional identity I should own.  If my heart aches at the injustices of our healthcare system, it’s partly because I know that I am complicit in the brokenness of that system, by my failure to work for change.

For next year’s Pastoral Care Week, I’d love a more warm and fuzzy kind of theme.  That’s much more my forte.  For now, I suppose I must continue sharpening my truth-speaking skills.  A dull prophet just won’t do.

Have you ever thought of yourself as a prophet?  What does it mean to you?  How do you see the need for prophetic voice in your circles of influence?

4 thoughts on “A Most Reluctant Prophet

  1. Pagan Chaplain

    Excellent post, Stacey. I had the same reaction to this year’s theme, for somewhat the same reason. Yet, I’ve noticed that I’m becoming more at ease with speaking those difficult truths in more kinds of situations. We grow in our work.
    Thank you for taking time to write about it.

  2. Love this! Thank you for pointing out that this is not a role someone signs up for. Too many people see it as one of the “shiny” positions in the body when it is really one of the most dangerous.

  3. It seems we are talking about two kinds of prophetic voices. One is about truth-telling to the patient, the other is about letting others, such as doctors, know about patient needs. At least for the latter, it may be less intimidating to think of that not so much as a “prophetic voice” but as “advocating for the patient.” The former is infinitely more complex, including factors such as using denial as a protective coping mechanism. I think we need to discuss these two very different aspects of chaplaincy separately. In that way, we ourselves will gain a better understanding and therefore a greater control over these two aspects.

  4. Latitia R. Adams

    This is an an older post, but prophetically powerful (…even as I struggle with my own prophetic call).

    I just found this blog and have not been able to stop reading; it has been such a blessing. This post has confirmed my next best step in ministry (which includes my greatest fear, coupled with the blessings that come with it), as I have been seeking and praying for direction. I live in Summerville and would love to speak with you personally. May God continue to richly bless you.

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