For most of my life, I’ve been a very status-conscious academic overachiever. So when I decided to learn about hospital chaplaincy, I chose the most rigorous training I could find: an extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, which would require sixteen hours a week in the hospital -- eight hours of patient visits and eight of classroom instruction -- for seven months, for a total of 400 hours. Because I was on a year-long sabbatical from teaching, I thought I could handle this without any trouble.
I was wrong. I’ve always thrived on demanding academic programs, but not this time. I’d gone into CPE tired; I quickly became more tired; and, to shorten a long and somewhat embarrassing story, I wound up withdrawing after barely more than a month. CPE’s a great program, and my classmates and instructors were wonderful, but I just wasn’t in the right place to be able to do it.
In retrospect, dropping CPE was one of the smartest decisions I ever made, but it also left me with a pretty big chip on my shoulder. I’d never been unable to complete a course: not even CUNY’s Summer Latin Institute, which I took my first year of graduate school and which nearly did me in. (Someday I’ll post about that. I have lots of Latin Camp stories.) The good news in all of this was that I’d discovered how much I loved the ER, where CPE interns are required to spend half their clinical time. And the volunteer coordinator at my hospital let me switch over to volunteering four hours a week without making me go through the three-weekend volunteer training course; she said I’d already done enough classroom time in CPE. (Thanks, Val!)
So I could keep the gig that had been my favorite part of CPE. But I also had to trade in my “Chaplain Intern” badge for a “Volunteer Chaplain” badge, which meant that five thousand imps of status-consciousness started dancing the tarantella on my shoulder-blades.
The word “volunteer” has a number of connotations. It can mean “warm-hearted, generous citizen.” But it can also imply “amateur,” “dilettante,” and “somebody without the qualifications to get paid:” in short, “unprofessional.” Hospitals treasure their volunteers, and my hospital is no exception, but healthcare chaplaincy has also become more and more highly professionalized. As a volunteer, I was still rubbing shoulders with paid staff chaplains and with CPE interns working towards that 400-hour certificate, and the mix made me more than a little self-conscious. When my non-hospital, non-church friend Rob listened to me wrestling with all this, he raised his eyebrows and said dryly, “Yep, when somebody visits me in the hospital, that’s the first thing I say. ‘Show me your certificate saying you’ve had 400 hours of training to do this, or you’re out of here.’” I laughed, and I certainly saw his point, but I still struggled not to feel like a failure whenever I was around one of the “real” chaplains.
We’d spent some time in CPE talking about the best way to introduce ourselves to patients. The word “chaplain” is even more loaded than the word “volunteer.” Entirely too many people have been traumatized by organized religion, and many other people think that chaplains only show up to give last rites. (“I visit everybody in the ER, so please don’t worry,” is one of the lines I often use when I introduce myself to patients; it usually makes them laugh, but you can see the relief on their faces, too.) Some chaplains prefer to say, “I’m a visitor from the Spiritual Care Department,” but whenever I’ve tried that, the patient has squinted and said, “The what?” Somebody who’s sick and stressed out just doesn’t need to deal with all those syllables.
So fairly early on, I decided that I’d introduce myself as a volunteer chaplain. It was short, it was simple, and it matched my badge. And early on, it was also my way of saying, “I’m not, like, a real chaplain or anything, so please don’t expect too much.”
But what I discovered, to my immense surprise, was that the word “volunteer,” more often than not, made patients beam at me, or reach for my hand, or break into goofy grins. A patient who’d been staring at me suspiciously would relax into a radiant smile as soon as I said I was a volunteer. “Oh, it’s so nice of you to do that!” The word “volunteer” turned out to be the best ice-breaker I could use. This was true even of non-religious patients, and even of patients who had no need or desire to talk to me. “I’m a volunteer,” rather than signaling my lack of qualifications, seemed to create instant trust.
Mind you, patients have dismissed me on other grounds: because I didn’t belong to their denomination, because they considered all religion useless, or because I wasn’t the right gender. (Some people still believe that chaplains have to be male, and women hold this view as often as men do.) In CPE we’d been told, “Chaplains are the only people in the hospital the patients can tell to go away, so if a patient doesn’t want you there, you should feel good about the fact that you’ve just empowered the patient.” I’ve empowered my fair share of patients, but never for the reasons I initially expected. Rob was right: no one’s ever said, “Show me your 400-hour certificate, or you’re out of here!” Some patients hostile to religion have sent me away because they assumed I was clergy -- some volunteer chaplains are clergy, but I’m not -- but no one’s ever sent me away for being a layperson. (Catholic patients will often request a visit from a priest for sacramental purposes, but they’re usually still happy to talk to me in the meantime.)
After thinking about all this for a while, I formed a theory about what the word “volunteer” means to patients. I don’t think they hear, “not good enough to be paid for this.” I think they hear, “doing this even though she isn’t being paid.” And I’ve come to believe that my lack of professional, accredited, and salaried status is one of the most helpful and healing ways I can act as a servant and ambassador of the God I try to follow.
Christians talk a lot about grace, which means “unearned, unmerited gift.” We believe in a gracious God who loves and heals us even if we’ve done nothing to earn that love and healing, and certainly without expectation of recompense. As a friend of mine’s fond of saying, “Nothing we do can make God love us any more, and nothing we do can make God love us any less.” Clergy and chaplains, like everybody else, need to eat, so as a practical matter, they need salaries. But I’m increasingly convinced that the professionalization of ministry -- despite its real benefits in terms of skills and standards -- contradicts that message of grace. “I’m here because I’m a highly trained professional being paid a salary to pray with you” is a very different message from “I’m here on my own time, just because I want to be, and just because I want to try to make you feel better.” I suspect the second message sounds more gracious to many patients than the first does. I’m real to patients, not because of how many hours I’ve spent in training, but simply because I’ve taken the time to show up.
And so the five thousand imps of status-consciousness have, for the most part, curled up and gone to sleep. Seeking to help heal patients, I’ve found that they’ve healed me.
But that’s no surprise. As anyone who’s completed CPE will tell you, that’s always how it works.