What Chaplains Don’t Do

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.

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3 thoughts on “What Chaplains Don’t Do

  1. Jen

    Just today at a hospital I overheard the chaplain asking a patient what congregation they belonged to and if there was a specific rabbi they would like to visit! In a (gasp) christian hospital. Chaplains do amazing work and often times do the hand holding, Kleenex issuing, and last minute hard work I wish as a nurse I could do more of!

  2. Pam

    Hi Stacy. Thank you for sharing your journey. I enjoy reading your thoughts about our valuable and relevant vocation and participation as part of the medical team.
    In response to all chaplains having MDiv degrees, I want to share with you that this is not the case for some of us. I (and many of my colleagues) possess an M.A. in Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care, which involved 72 hours of coursework including theology, ethics, psycho social education, religious/cultural diversity, an entire semester on family systems alone, and 57 intensive hours focusing on specific areas of pastoral care. Working toward and achieving this degree prepared me better than I could have imagined for a full-time career in healthcare chaplaincy.
    Thank you for the work you do, and for offering to others the opportunity to understand what we really do! Blessings to you!

    1. Hi, Pam. Thanks for reading. I’m sorry you misunderstood what I meant by “all of us” having M.Div degrees. In the previous sentence, I said “at MUSC” and that’s what the “all of us” was referring to. At this hospital, a 90-hour M.Div is a requirement for all chaplains, though I know that’s not the case at all hospitals. I’m glad you had a good experience with your M.A. The divinity school I attended just recently started offering a joint M.A./M.Div in pastoral care and counseling, and I wish that had been an option when I was there (though 60 hours of my course work was pastoral care classes, thankfully). I’m glad you enjoy the blog! It’s always great to hear from fellow chaplains. Blessings in your ministry!

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