Because this is Pastoral Care Week, I’ll be part of an event at my hospital which includes a reading from my book, and a question and answer session on the role of healthcare chaplains. The event is co-sponsored by our Pastoral Care department and the hospital’s Humanities Committee (of which I am a member), and has been advertised all over campus. Someone who saw the flyers was concerned that in a hospital committed to diversity and inclusion, we were promoting Christianity. I had to laugh at the irony. Such misconceptions of what chaplains do are exactly why such an event is needed!
Yes, I am a Christian, an ordained minister, and a chaplain endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Everything I do is informed by my identity as a follower of Christ. But my role as a chaplain is not to promote my own beliefs. I’m not interested in trying to “convert” anyone, which would be incredibly manipulative given the crisis circumstances under which I meet most patients and their families. I don’t preach to people in the hospital. Even if I wanted to, I would not be allowed to do so by the policies of the hospital and the standards of professional chaplaincy.
Instead, my calling is to help the people I meet to access their own sources of hope, comfort, and strength. Those are the things that can help them heal. The Joint Commission now recognizes the importance of meeting the spiritual, religious, and cultural needs of patients, and includes spiritual care in their accreditation standards for hospitals. In our hospital’s electronic charting system, for example, there is a spiritual care assessment tool that encourages chaplains to find out things like what beliefs and practices help the patient cope with stress, what gives their life meaning and how those things might be affected by this illness, and who they consider their community, the people they depend on and love. These are questions that could apply to anyone, regardless of whether or not they identify as religious.
I understand why misunderstandings like this occur. The word “chaplain” sometimes gets misused, applied to people who are untrained volunteers and often do see their job as an attempt to make converts. That saddens me. But at MUSC, as at many other hospitals, chaplains are held to high standards of education and training. All of us have Master of Divinity degrees, which take 90 hours of coursework to obtain. We all have at least four units of Clinical Pastoral Education, entailing 1600 hours of supervised spiritual care visits and having those visits analyzed, critiqued, and sometimes ripped to shreds by peers and supervisors. CPE is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but that training — among peers and patients whose beliefs were often very different than mine — made me a better person and a much better chaplain.
Diversity and inclusion matter to me as a chaplain, as much as they do to anyone else who works in this hospital. I’m not just here for the people who identify as Christian. If my patients or families want a leader from their own religious tradition, I’m happy to call one for them. We have those connections in the community and can contact a priest, imam, rabbi, elder, etc. anytime, day or night, from our on-call list. But many times, I find that all people in crisis want is someone to be with them, to hold their hand, offer a non-anxious presence, listen to their feelings without judgment, and let them know they are not alone. That isn’t as easy as it might sound, but as chaplains we are highly trained and highly skilled at doing just that.