The Cross and Hospital Chaplaincy

[This post was written over the past week in spurts on the train, at home, and at work.  Slowly I’ll figure out a new blogging rhythm . . .]

I’ve been a hospital chaplain for two weeks, and already I am ready to amend or even discard my pre-employment concerns about tucking in my cross.  Granted, my feelings were mixed then, but now I am convinced that religious symbols – including the cross I wear around my neck – have no place in hospital chaplaincy.  Why?  Because of the nature of my work, and because of the cross itself. 

First, the nature of my work.

In this hospital, I am not called to be a Christian chaplain, let alone a Lutheran pastor or Lutheran chaplain.  Unlike a parish pastor serving a congregation, I do not share a common set of religious values, beliefs or traditions with my "congregation," the patients I serve.  I can assume nothing about the religious or spiritual life of my patients until they invite me into their piety and faith.  To my surprise, this doesn’t happen much.

I was hired to provide spiritual or emotional support to patients and staff, regardless of faith (or lack there-of).  Central to my practice as chaplain is providing a safe place in which the other – patients, family members, staff members – can freely express their myriad feelings.  Unlike the listening that a friend, family member, co-worker, or even a church pastor offers, the chaplain is a stranger not wrapped up in the tangled web of emotions that define intimate personal relationships.  Thus the chaplain is an unknown yet trusted companion and listener – what is said to the chaplain stays with the chaplain, and will not upset existing relationships.  The chaplain is safe.

(How often does a listening friend or family member try to fix a grieving person’s feelings or situation, and in so doing stifle or redirect that person’s emotional outpouring?  Or how often do I hesitate to speak freely about my feelings for fear of upsetting my listening friend or family member?  The disciplined structure of the safe space set up by the chaplain offers a unique opportunity for a free and open expression of feelings.)

But what about religion?  Aren’t chaplains supposed to be religious?  What has impressed me so much in my first two weeks on the job is that I have not been an overtly religious chaplain.  I have rarely prayed with patients, and only once have I opened a Bible.  I am more than glad to offer religious texts, prayers and symbols, if that is what the patient wants, but more often than not the patient – who finds herself in an alien, distorted and distorting environment – wants a listening ear, a companion, an opportunity to grieve.  Most of my patients are seeking comfort, but not necessarily one that is rooted in religion.

And so due to the nature of the work I tuck in my cross.  Wearing a cross does not facilitate a patient’s emotional expression.  Rather, it makes a statement about me, what I represent, what I believe.  But chaplaincy is not about me; it is about the other.  Chaplaincy calls for an anonymity on the part of the chaplain – who imposes as little personality as possible on the other – so that the other can be unhindered in her self expression.

Yet also because of that cross I am glad to tuck it in.  The cross does not boast of itself, and does not need to be exposed to have meaning.  In fact, the cross that dangles unseen beneath my shirt reminds me of the humility of the cross and the anonymity of suffering.  In this setting am I to draw attention to myself, to wear my faith on my sleeve?  How does that benefit my patients?  Furthermore, I do not need a cross around my neck, for the suffering of the cross surrounds me, present in every patient bed.  The cross is there, whether I wear one or not.  "When I was sick, you visited me . . ."

Moreover, the practice of providing a safe place is a deeply spiritual practice of hospitality that stems from our tradition.  From Old Testament hospitality laws to Jesus’ command to love your neighbor, our tradition calls out for us to honor the other.  If the other expresses a need for a particular Holy Word or sacred symbol, I gladly offer it, but that is secondary to the spiritual acts of providing hospitality and honoring the neighbor.

Finally, a word about the cross or clerical collar.  These symbols have meaning for members of certain communities of faith and as a pastor I would not hesitate to wear a clerical collar in the course of my ministry.  But absent the community that embraces the meaning of these symbols, I am not eager to introduce my symbols of faith in this hospital setting where I am called to serve everyone, regardless of creed or concept of God.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

6 thoughts on “The Cross and Hospital Chaplaincy

  1. Very interesting reflections. I see your point(s).
    OTOH, what about the people who really want or need to talk about spiritual issues and don’t know how to start the conversation? I would thnk that this isn’t rare.
    I can think of times in the past where we have been disappointed that a pastor hasn’t got past the superficial talk.
    But I know that BEING THERE is the first, the important step, and doing it without imposing too much of your background on the patients IS important. I had a difficult time in a hospital when I couldn’t get a chaplain even when I requested one.

  2. Sounds like there is something to be said for experience in the setting. For those people who do request specific Christian/Jewish/Islamic clergy, do you have a process of referral?
    On a related note, can you foresee chaplaincy/specialized pastoral care being a a career path?

  3. PS –
    You’re right, but as a chaplain without prior relationship to the patient or knowledge of their faith tradition or piety, I really cannot lead them somewhere. However, once they invite me into their piety or faith I will gladly nudge or lead them in a certain way, given that I think it would be helpful and useful for the patient. Otherwise, deliberate spiritual direction or specific spiritual comfort is what their pastor or lay minister can provide . . .

  4. Don’t let your supervisor catch that “nudge them in a certain way” talk. You’ll have a bit of “development time” for that.
    It’s odd, I found myself disagreeing with you but then remembered that I didn’t collar-up nor wear a cross on my own CPE experience so I really was on shaky footing to be arguing.
    Two (contrary) thoughts:
    1) You are coming in as a Christian, and while that in no way means an overt display of symbology, it does presuppose a certain set of beliefs that I think it might be disingenuous to keep “hidden” or at least not disclosed. I found no resistance to my faith so long as it was mot made a point of division or judgment.
    2)But this also calls to Luther’s ideas on vocation, that you need not be a CHRISTIAN in all caps and also a chaplain, but rather a chaplain who is, believes and acts in a distinctly Christian manner. “They wioll know we are Christians by our love” goes the song, but they’ll know you are loving by your love, they might have to ask whether or not you are Christian.

  5. I just wanted to thank you for pointing me to this post. It’s making me think I should perhaps not clutch my Gideons like a child’s comfort blanket… that said it is a great place to keep the patient chart…
    Anyway, thanks.

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