My first few days I struggled with feeling as if I wasn’t being chaplainy enough. I would spend time with the patients, and quickly, I would learn if their children were wonderful, or if they provided a source of anxiety, I learned where they lived, what they did, and generally, whether I wanted to know it or not, their political views. I also learned, by observation or by blank statement what they needed from me. The question plagued me, though, Am I doing this right?
Serving as a chaplain is an oddly unique role: one foot in ministry, the other in the medical world; we’re pastors, but not clergy; we’re the people who when they ask you how you feel we aren’t asking exclusively about your IV port OR your spiritual life.
This is strange, not just for the chaplain, but for the patient as well. As chaplains, we have the privilege, granted by our badge, to enter into rooms uninvited and randomly and engage people in personal ways. Every interaction reveals something about the patient. You can tell a lot about people’s story by how they answer the simple question, “What brought you to the hospital?” I’ve gotten every answer imaginable from “An ambulance” to “While five years ago…”. We have the unique opportunity to engage in intensely personal, but also intensely brief relationships; things are shared that outside of this situation would take years to reveal.
One of the things I’ve learned throughout these 50 days, is that not everyone needs a chaplain, but everyone would like to be acknowledged and accepted. “Not everyone needs a chaplain. Yet just about all of us, simply because we’re human, need, or at least value, some expression of interest in ourselves. To some degree we all have a deep yearning for acceptance. To experience acceptance helps us to cope with those common human feelings of alienation and brokenness that are an integral part of being human.”
Being a chaplain, or non-chaplain as the needs required, I was able to sit with people in moments of fear and sadness and be able to give them the opportunity to take steps toward healing not just the physical body, but their mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies as well.
One of the things I realized is that I’m not good at sitting with people in these dark moments because I’m chaplainy enough, but rather because I am able to see each patient as a hurting being. Recognizing that this hurt almost always runs deeper than the physical wounds that made them stop and think about their health and lives, I am able to listen and, even if only briefly, live with them in the pain that they feel. Enduring this with people and offering a sense of genuine love and acceptance, even through those broken moments, I was able to provide steps toward healing.
Often, when I told people what I was doing this summer their eyes widened and they shook their heads in disbelief, plagued with questions of how or why this interested me. Chaplaincy isn’t important to me because I love the life of a hospital, although it’s interesting, or because I’m fascinated with the healing process, although it is dynamic, or because I needed some gross stories, which I certainly now have.
Chaplaincy is important precisely because not everyone needs a chaplain. It’s not about praying in a room and leaving, it’s about extending the sense of a being loved by God, even through the deepest pain, when God feels the furthest away. It’s about being a source of hope and a reminder that we are not defined by our wounds, physical, spiritual, or emotional, but rather we are defined by the identity we find in the one who made, loves, and accepts us.
 Kanaly, Marion, and Lawrence E. Holst. “The Voices on a Surgery Unit: The Loss of Control.” In Hospital Ministry: The Role of the Chaplain Today, New York: Crossroad, 1985.