Initial reflections on 9 months of chaplaincy

Earlier today I completed my 9-month hospital chaplaincy (a three-unit CPE residency).  All ELCA seminarians are required to complete one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, usually in a hospital setting as a chaplain, and usually over 12 weeks during the summer.  My experience was just like that standard summer experience – only longer and, because of the cumulative, snowballing nature of the learning on CPE, much more intense.  A few thoughts:

  • My future ministry will be greatly impacted by this experience.  As a hospital chaplain, I was not called to be a Lutheran chaplain, or a Christian chaplain, or even a religious chaplain.  In our hospital the emphasis was to offer "emotional and spiritual support" to patients, families and staff.  My starting point for care was not religion or faith – it was most often the human experience of pain, suffering, and loss.  Empathy, listening, compassion, conversation, presence – these were my primary tools.  If religion was part of the other’s milieu, then that was part of my caregiving.  If religion was not part of the other’s milieu, then it never entered our discussion.  This radical emphasis on the other (rather than placing a priority on religion or my role as clergy-type vis-a-vis a layperson) will shape the way I engage in ministry as a Lutheran pastor.
  • In one of my many struggles with pastoral identity over the past year, my supervisor encouraged me to imagine myself sitting with the patient at a bar, making authentic, natural, real conversation.  The problem was that I was over-thinking, working too hard at the task of pastoral conversation, preventing me from simply offering myself in these encounters.  I was trying to "be" a chaplain rather than simply be authentic.  As a result, I’m now looking to purchase two bar stools for my church office, to remind me of the real nature of pastoral work.  (I’m not sure that I’ll be installing a wet bar, however!)
  • I’ve learned about the tyranny of the 9-5 schedule over these nine months.  For all the (justified) complaining we clergy-types do about our schedules – we work nights, weekends, and holidays, after all – I much prefer the flexibility of the clergy work schedule than I do the unforgiving inflexibility for a 9-5 job.  Miss a train by a minute and I was 40 minutes late to work.  Show up late to work, and I’ve screwed up the chaplain before me who has been waiting.  Ours was a strict schedule with shifts, daily report meetings and weekly schedules for clinical reports, didactics and group reflection.  There was little wiggle room in the schedule.  Together with a 90-minute commute in each direction, I was away from home 11+ hours/day – and saw very little of my children each day. 
  • I’ve thought much more about my own health, death, and have often imagined the loss of my wife and girls.  I’ll be glad to get away from such direct and vivid reminders of my mortality, but I’m grateful, too, for the education.  I now know much more about death and grief, and can clearly state now from experience what kind of measures I want taken if I am ever in a critical or life-threatening condition.  (And I’ll write a post soon about what measures I want taken if I’m on a ventilator for a prolonged period of time – it killed me to see patients who were unable to communicate suffer through hours bad television shows.  Please, if I’m semi-conscious in a hosptial bed, do not put Maury Povitch on my TV!  Get me some ESPN or NPR, please!)
  • I’ll miss the intimacy of entering into people’s lives during some of their most difficult times.  There’s something about a hospital gown and IV tubes that really prevents a patient from putting on airs about how they’re feeling.  Sunday mornings are a different kind of experience, filled with too many fake smiles and perfunctory "I’m fine, thank you" responses.  In recent weeks if a patient said, "I’m fine, thank you," to me, I was likely to gently call their bluff: "Yeah, except for the fact that you’re in a hospital rather than your home."  That often led into some conversation about their pain, their worry, and their hope for recovery and the future.
  • My supervisors have encouraged me on a few occasions to explore becoming a Board Certified Chaplain.  This thought intrigues me, as I have come to greatly appreciate and even love the chaplaincy approach to pastoral ministry.  Some Board Certified Chaplains serve in congregations after or while they also serve in a clinical setting (hospital, nursing home, prison, etc.).  This is one of those discernment pieces that will stick with me for a while.

Many more thoughts later.  It is getting late.  G’night.

Published by Lutheran Zephyr

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “Initial reflections on 9 months of chaplaincy

  1. 1) I’ve heard some horror stories about CPE, esp. the sort of “group therapy sessions” with the other participants. Apparently yours have been more helpful than brutal.
    2) I would think that pastors-to-be from traditions that firmly emphasize evangelizing everyone they meet (overtly asking “Are you saved?” would have a hard time with the approach you were urged to adopt. Any comments on that?
    3) 9-5 grind: My husband had a very demanding work schedule for 28 years that included tons of evenings and weekends, but did grant a mid-week day off each week. He changed to a more “normal” schedule. Now we find it hard to arrange time to take care of business needing appointments (or even making business phone calls) during the week. Makes me realize what most people put up with.

  2. Hey PS,
    Thanks for the comment. Re: #2 – yes, this approach to pastoral ministry requires placing a priority on the other person rather than on me, my faith, my God, or my Bible. Too many religious traditions place a priority (intentionally or not) on themselves, their own books/rites/teachings, the righteousness of their adherents, conversion of others to their way of thinking/believing. In my opinion, this is not the way to “be” with someone in their pain and suffering – or in any other aspect of their life – for that matter.

  3. Hey Chris –
    Ten years ago I did a 400 hr. CPE over the course of 9 months in a hospital setting. At the same time doing pastoral ministry in a congregation (I was in a residency/ internship program through Luther Sem.) I did find there were cross-over “skills” – the relational ministry and being authentic – the ability to handle a crisis situation, the obvious emphasis on confidentiality – I applaud you for your sincere and hard work – your reflections are good ones.
    Say a little more about the possibility of pastoral ministry at the bedside of a congregation member in the hospital. I would be curious to have your insight about that.

  4. I dropped into your reflections from a link on Google. I appreciated the wisdom and clarity. As an ACPE supervisor for over 20 years, I am always impressed with students, such as yourself, that open to the experience and communicate so clearly.

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