A Chaplain’s Journey 1

I thought it would be beneficial, not only to me but to those making a decision about becoming a hospital Chaplain (or, just the outright curious), to share my experiences as a Chaplain.

I will say this at the very beginning: I caution anyone thinking about becoming a Chaplain, specifically here a hospital or hospice Chaplain. The role of a hospital or hospice (caring for the dying, usually with a six month longevity) Chaplain is demanding. Not so much in terms of hours, though long hours, flexible schedule, and being on-call at all hours is a strain. The demands of this profession are placed on the mind, the heart, the spirit, and the soul. I can say this without fear of contradiction: all Chaplains are Pastors, but not all Pastors can be Chaplains.

For the purpose of transparency, I have been a Chaplain for a year and a half. I have been a Pastor for four years. In the grand scheme of things, I have very little experience and yet, I have gained a lot of experience. While I graduated Seminary with a Masters degree in Bible and a Master in Divinity, I had no formal training or education in Chaplaincy. This is referred to as CPE or Clinical Pastoral Education (usually 400 hours – 4 units comprising of 100 hours each – of of supervised clinical practice in the ministry of Chaplaincy). My Seminary did not have a program geared specifically to a Chaplain field. Though, we had 18 credit hours (two full semesters) of supervised field experience in pastoral care and ministry. All that being said, I do not have “formal” training in any Chaplain field. My training has been OJT – On the Job Training.

I will be honest, I feel this has been far more beneficial that going through formal training as it truly is “baptism by fire” and very, very real. I have had other Chaplains I work with give me invaluable assistance, getting my feet planted firmly in such a demanding ministry, and being there to guide me, exhort me, and correct me when I have made inevitable mistakes.

Now, without much more preamble, I will begin this sojourn of mine.

There are many different types of Chaplains. Each with their own joys and pains. However, I believe, after talking with different Chaplains, that hospital Chaplains have the greatest amount of fluctuation in terms of joy and pain. Ones that comes close to the sheer heartache or soaring contentment are Police or Fire Chaplains.

Military Chaplains have their element of danger and are unique in that respect and have the most absurd amount of pain and sorrow when in combat. Frankly, they are the hardest ministry given their service and what that service ultimately means. I may be biased, being a veteran myself, but that is what I believe from what I have seen first-hand. However, military Chaplains cannot fall into the same category as other Chaplains due specifically to the position being available for only the few that can pass the test of training and willingness to suspend certain rights and liberties to ensure those rights and liberties for others. This is not a Chaplaincy that someone off the street can “just” walk into as it is a lengthy process of physical and mental training not many can or are willing to do. Therefore, with the greatest respect, love, and admiration for our military, I cannot place them in the same category as other Chaplains. These truly are the “Special Forces” of ministry.

Another Chaplaincy I do not believe fits within the same category as Hospital, Police, or Fire (what I call “Responder” Chaplaincy) would be Prison Chaplaincy. Of course, this is a stressful ministry, one with it’s own ups and downs, but the heartache is in a different place than what Responder Chaplaincy would be. Here, there are no truly “innocent” victims of circumstance. This does not mean they do not receive the same opportunity of salvation as any other creation of God. But, it is a different type of ministry, more reactive Chaplaincy. I do not want to belabor the difference and I hope it can be evident. However, it is still a very hard and stressful ministry with the burden of safety, care, and knowledge of what people have done that can wear on you all they while having to sit across from what we would deem “evil” people and hope they take the opportunity of forgiveness and grace (of course, find one individual who is not evil compared to the glory of God).

If there is one piece of advice I hope to pass on from my ministry it is this: If you are thinking about becoming a hospital Chaplain, please think very hard. There needs to be a lot of time in prayer. You should shadow a hospital chaplain for a few weeks, even to the point of going with them on-call at those forsaken hours of the night. And think really, really think about it. A hospital Chaplain offers such great joy but also can be crushing with sorrow. It can test faith. It can put your character through the wringer. And it can toy with your state of mind.

You need broad shoulders to be a Chaplain. You don’t need thick skin. That doesn’t help. Broad shoulders are what is required. You have to be able to carry quite a load from others and from yourself. You will see things that will make you cry in happiness and sadness – that is why you don’t need thick skin. You have to let that emotion get to you. But, you have to carry the weight of confessions (not in the Catholic framework of theology, but in general) that people burden you with, the hurt of victims, patients, and family; the hatred and anger of those who blame God – and by extension the Chaplain – for what has befallen them. You have to carry the suffering because you are there to help alleviate that from people. A Chaplain picks up of the hurting so they can breathe for a moment, think a little clearer in that instant, and still be able to function in order to have a door open to the Gospel.

In a word, a Chaplain needs: Empathy. Not to be confused with Sympathy. Sympathy can be manufactured. It can be forced – even plausibly forced. But people can and eventually will see through sympathy because it is often a product of pity and pity can be conjured without real emotion. No one wants to have shallow pity. What they want is someone to feel like they do. They want someone to understand how it feels, not pay lip service in some thin layered sympathetic attitude. Empathy is actually feeling what they feel, letting it get inside you, hurt you – or make you happy depending on the circumstance. You look through the eyes of the person and understand, feel, what they are going through.

Empathy does not mean you have had to go through the same thing as someone. One only needs to look at Christ, who was the most empathetic human on earth. He could understand, take it in, feel the pain and suffering of others. A Chaplain must be the same way. You do not have to go through the same experiences, but you have to let it effect you. You have to let it in.

So many times I have seen Chaplains become jaded. I am not passing judgment, I fully understand that after years and years of seeing pain you become hardened to it and build up walls. We call this being “Shell Shocked” or “Battle Hardened”. It’s the point at which, while you do care and it hurts, it is pushed down deep so it does not effect you and that, unfortunately, gives the impression you do not care, or as we would say, have a “bad bedside manner”. Again, I fully understand how this happens and do not pass judgment because it happens to Chaplains, nurses, doctors, firemen, police, and EMTs all the time. You just shut down and go through the motions. If you ever get to that point, it is time to move on. Period. Patients want someone who can still be affected by the situation.

Now, that being said, it is not good for a Chaplain to go pieces and blubber with a grieving patient. You have one extreme of being jaded and another of being sensitive. Again, it is not about sympathy or sensitivity. It is about empathy. Yes, have a tear in your eye or your voice crack but, do not go sobbing on the shoulder of the one you are there to consul. I have seen this extreme as well and it never helps. It is as bad as a cold bedside manner.

Please understand, it is not my intention to slight individuals that have seen so much they have put those walls or those who are sensitive to people’s plight. I have put up walls in my own life to keep from pain and I cry at stupid commercials about dads and their kids. I really do get it. My intention is only to paint an accurate picture, one you can study and analyze and determine if it is something you would hang in your home. The role of Chaplain is not about “you” and “your” ministry. It is about the people you are there to help. If you do not have the capability to have your emotions in check and yet still empathize with a person, there is nothing wrong with you. You just are not right for the position. There are other ministries where your unique skills, talents, and personality will be of great benefit.

All Chaplains are Pastors, but not all Pastors can be Chaplains.

I cannot make this any more clear. It is not for everyone. I am not musically inclined so I should never be in charge of a Worship ministry. I once investigated Prison Chaplaincy before taking my journey into the hospital. Honestly, I do not know if I could be a Prison Chaplain. I have spoken with Chaplains about this ministry in great detail and until I shadow them, I honestly do not know if I am the right person for it. The main reason, though I was law enforcement in the military and have had great experience with criminals and the accused, I may have a problem sitting across a convicted rapist or pedophile and earnestly proclaiming the Gospel to them without wanting to lunge across the table and snatching the heart out of their chest. Brutal, but an honest critique of my capability. We are all made differently and uniquely. We have strengths and weaknesses. Some we can overcome and correct or build up. Others are just a part of our personality, the way God created us.

So, give yourself an honest critique. Are you made by God to be a Hospital Chaplain? Men are called to be Pastors. It is not a vocation you seek out. It is one you are called to. Within Pastoral care, you are called to certain ministries. Some we can pick and choose because of interest or maybe we are even thrust into it. But Chaplains…that you are called to within the calling of Pastoral care.

  • Can you feel empathy, not sympathy, for others in their joy or pain?
  • Can you look through their eyes, experience what they are experiencing, and let if effect you?
  • Can you have control over those emotions; while letting them move you, still be able to function and be the support others need?
  • Are you able to carry the burdens of others?
  • Will you be able to sleep at night seeing pain, suffering, blood, and death?
  • And can you keep it from your family?

The last one is quite frankly the most important. Not only in terms of patient confidentiality and HIPAA, but in not burdening your wife or children. What you see and experience within a hospital can be horrific. You will see the suffering, pain, blood and guts of the very young to the very old. Maybe…even people you know. Imagine how that effects you. Do you want that same effect to carry over to your family? No one in your family should be burdened by what you see or know. It’s…just not right.

Now, that does not mean keep it bottled up. That is not healthy in the least. Keeping all of it to yourself is a sure-fire way to become seriously unhealthy and mentally messed up…I believe those are the official medical terms. Find a “Battle Buddy”, a fellow Pastor – or better – a fellow Chaplain who you can talk to. Of course, make sure they are emphatic as well, I believe that goes without saying. These are the ones you unburden yourself to. Do not unburden yourself to your wife. This is true for any Pastor as you are privy to confidential information about another person and no on but you and that individual can talk about it. However, within the Pastoral care community, much like doctors, lawyers, and mental health professions, we can talk about things with each other as we have that common confidentiality among ourselves. It’s considered much like getting professional advice or conferring with a colleague about specific care. Just remember, within the healthcare service, do not share specific medical information with anyone outside of the patient’s immediate care. I am talking specifically about spiritual concerns or your experiences witnessing suffering. Medical information stays within the hospital.

Of course, one should talk to their wife. Do not keep them in the dark as to how you are feeling, but keep it in general terms. Yes, we are given our helpmates from God for the specific purpose: help. And everyone needs help. It would really depend on your relationship and if your wife can handle it. But again, confidential is confidential in any setting of Pastoral care. If you think you shouldn’t talk about it then you probably shouldn’t. Unless, it is with another Pastoral professional.

I am going to continue this journey. But I believe this is a good place to wrap up this first part. You could call this an “Introduction”. Some basics to think about when considering a Chaplaincy ministry. Think very hard about your fit into the ministry, your capabilities, what you are called to do. Pray. Pray. Pray. Investigate and shadow.

Remember: All Chaplains are Pastors, but not all Pastors can be Chaplains. There is no shame in that and it is actually a very good sign of personal and spiritual maturity when we can evaluate ourselves and actually say, “No. This is not where God wants me. He has other plans for me in another ministry.”

Cal Wiggins, Chaplain, Wayne Memorial Hospital

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