Have you ever met someone who thought that what you do for a living was a waste of resources? Someone who questioned whether your job should even exist? It’s not all that uncommon for me. Some people just don’t get why having hospital chaplains on staff is a justifiable expense, especially in a public hospital like ours, with no religious affiliation. “Those visits should be taken care of by local clergy,” they often say, or, “Lots of patients these days aren’t religious and don’t have any use for chaplains.” Others suggest that nurses could be trained to provide spiritual care, since they spend so much time with patients anyway. This all results from a fundamental misunderstanding of who chaplains are and what we do. One of the reasons I started this blog and wrote my first book was to clear up some of those misconceptions.
I get called during my 12- hour shift for any number of different reasons. A family is in the emergency waiting area demanding an update on their loved one? Call the chaplain. Someone is crying loudly in the hallway? Call the chaplain. A patient is struggling to cope with a new cancer diagnosis? Call the chaplain. Nurses are feeling stressed by changes on their unit? Call the chaplain.
I’m one of ten full-time chaplains on staff at the hospital I serve. At least one of us (usually two) can be found on campus 24/7, available to respond to calls within minutes. Many people think we are only called in when someone dies. It’s true that a chaplain will often go with doctors to inform family members of a patient’s death, and stay with the family to offer support after the doctors leave. But that’s far from all we do. Another misconception is that we’re only there for religious people. Again, that’s just not true.
I’m not going to try and convince the agnostic or atheist patient to believe in God. That’s not what chaplains do. I’m also not going to tell them there’s nothing I can do for them since they aren’t religious. Everyone has spiritual needs, and I’m there to offer support to all of them. After completing a Master’s degree, most chaplains must endure a year of residency, learning how to address diverse cultural and religious needs, gaining experience in crisis intervention and grief counseling, exploring our own emotional baggage and cultural biases so they won’t get in the way of our care, practicing empathy, active listening, and non-anxious presence. Some of my best visits have started with the patient or family member saying, “No offense, but I don’t believe in God.”
Take the victim of a drive-by shooting; he told me he didn’t believe in God. If he had, I imagine his faith would have been severely tested by this turn of events. Standing in front of a neighbor’s house, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a stray bullet shattered his spine. His nurse called for a chaplain after he had been told he would never walk again. He needed me to hold his hand while he let go of all the emotions he had been afraid to show to his mother and his friends, to help him grieve the loss of the future he had envisioned for himself, and to believe with him that although his new life would be different, he still had the power to make it a good one all the same.
I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of a non-anxious presence, a listening ear, empathy, compassion. These things can be healing, and they’re some of what I do best as a chaplain.
This was especially true for the young woman who witnessed the traumatic deaths of two of her friends in a crash. For days, those who loved her had discouraged her from talking about it, thinking it would upset her more. When I sat with her in silence for a few minutes, when I earned her trust by staying even when she vented her anger, it didn’t matter that our beliefs were so different. I gave her space to cry and curse, to ask why this happened, to express her survivor guilt and her complicated grief. She slept through the night for the first time since the crash after our visit.
Of course, many of my patients do believe in God, as one might expect here in the American south. Their religious beliefs are an essential part of their life, perhaps especially while they are in the hospital. I sang hymns and spirituals with a woman who wouldn’t be singing with her church choir on Sunday because she was having her leg amputated as a result of diabetes. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with a man who still remembered every word, when Alzheimer’s had robbed him of most words and memories.
I did an interfaith blessing for a stillborn infant whose Catholic father wanted her baptized, but whose Jewish mother objected. A few words of blessing with my hand on the baby’s head, and a prayer that didn’t mention Jesus, were the compromise we reached. The mother wept when I gave her a certificate of blessing I had filled out with all of their names and the date. She said she would frame it, as it was the one thing she had with her daughter’s name on it. Only living babies get birth certificates.
In a hospital with no chaplain, how would those needs have been met? Would the young man with a spinal cord injury have found hope in the face of a life-changing prognosis? Would the traumatized crash survivor have had an outlet for her anger and a way to let go of her guilt? Would the choir singer have gone into surgery feeling at peace with God and reassured that her faith would help her heal? Would the man with Alzheimer’s disease have experienced the sense of connection with another person and with his religious heritage that he hadn’t felt in a long time? Would the parents of a stillborn baby have left the hospital with tangible evidence that their child had a name and a birthdate and a blessing? Maybe. Maybe not. And those questions are far too important to be left unanswered, in my opinion.
We can’t leave spiritual care needs to hospital staff with no training in chaplaincy and no time to do any job but their own. The kind of care chaplains give isn’t something that can be squeezed in to a few minutes during a medical exam or an IV placement. It requires, and deserves, the full time and attention of the caregiver. And we can’t rely exclusively on community clergy who already have their hands full with the needs of their own congregations, and often can’t get to the hospital in a timely manner. Chaplains certainly reach out to local clergy if patients are part of a faith community nearby, or if they want a member of their own religious group to provide spiritual care. But we are always available, even when other clergy are not.
Medical professionals in the twenty-first century know that a patient’s physical health doesn’t exist in isolation. When a patient feels hopeless, isolated, stressed, angry, these things can have tremendous negative impact on their health and ability to heal. And when nurses or other hospital staff members feel such things, they are far more likely to experience burnout and leave their jobs. These are exactly the kind of needs chaplains are trained and equipped to meet. Doing so has a positive effect on the entire hospital community.
I love being a hospital chaplain, even though it’s tough sometimes. Every day is different, and brings new opportunities to use my extensive training in crisis intervention, counseling techniques, spiritual assessment, family systems theory, and more. So much of what we do is behind the scenes, but those we work with most closely are always glad to see us. We respond to every trauma in the emergency room, and often I’ll hear a member of the trauma team say, “Oh, chaplain, I’m so glad you’re here.” One of my chaplain friends wondered aloud what it was she did that was so important, when she felt a bit useless standing off to one side in the trauma bay. But an ER nurse told her, “It’s your job to just be here, and when we see you, we remember God is in the middle of this mess with us.”