Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Chaplaincy Debate: the Miniseries!

Yes, there's more. The folks over at PlainViews have posted another set of responses to the volunteer-chaplain controversy. Here's part of one reaction from Louise M. Hutchinson, a chaplain in Fall River MA:
I am aware of an organization that provides hospital/nursing home visitation by lay men and women who refer to themselves as "chaplains." At first, I was shocked, but got over it because they really just do not understand that there is a "difference." I tried to explain, but got nowhere. The organization has been ministering for YEARS. I am grateful that these men and women who take their "gift of visitation" seriously for Jesus' sake.
We're shocked, shocked, to learn that people who've been ministering to patients for years actually think of themselves as chaplains!

Okay, I guess that was snarky. I obviously can't be a good chaplain. If I'd completed 5,000 hours of CPE, I wouldn't be snarky anymore: snarkectomy is a requirement for certification. Also, I must not be too bright, because I clearly just do not understand the huge difference, to the patient, between a board-certified chaplain who visits the bedside to talk, comfort, and pray and a volunteer chaplain who visits the bedside to talk, comfort, and pray.

Ms. Hutchinson: Hey, I get it, really. There are things staff chaplains can do, especially in terms of teamwork with other professionals at the hospital, that volunteers simply can't. In complicated situations -- ethical dilemmas, culture clashes, tangled family conflicts -- that teamwork may be crucial. But in less complicated situations, the conversation and comfort and prayer offered by a caring, well-trained volunteer are just as meaningful to the patient as they'd be if they were offered by a staff chaplain. And that frees up the staff chaplain to deal with the complicated stuff.

I've had very meaningful visits with ED patients who weren't being admitted to the hospital. Because we don't have a staff chaplain dedicated to the ED, and because the pastoral needs of these patients weren't necessarily obvious to medical staff, these patients wouldn't have gotten any pastoral care if I hadn't been there. So yes, I take my "gift of visitation" seriously -- and in all seriousness, thank you for at least acknowledging that. Many of your professional colleagues don't.

While I take my ministry seriously for Jesus' sake, though, that doesn't mean that I can't talk to people who don't believe in Jesus. I've been trained better than that. Here's another response, this one slightly longer, from the Rev. Mary Holmen, Chaplain at Selkirk Mental Health Center:
It was suggested that chaplains are “an extension of the church”. While I belong to a church and am endorsed for ministry (ordained) by that church, in my professional role I am the Interfaith Chaplain. There is even some discussion about whether "chaplain” is the best title for one engaged in interfaith spiritual care, since it is rooted so firmly in Christian history. I minister to people of all faith traditions and none, for the experience of illness affects the spiritual health of all people. I operate from a theological conviction that the Creator wills and intends for us to become whole persons –- physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. The resources of one’s own and other traditions can assist in that journey to wholeness. Some patients and families will indeed want -– and they get -– the ministry of the church, through prayer, sacred readings, sacraments and other rites, and connection with their tradition and its representatives. There are a lot of people, though, who do not belong to any organized faith group and do not intend to form this kind of connection. I seek to bring the conviction and hope that healing and wholeness are possible, rather than “the church” in an official sense.

On the other hand, (trained) volunteer pastoral visitors can and should be an extension of their own church to their own members. That kind of support and connection is extremely important in the journey of recovery and navigating the changes that may be happening in the person’s and family’s life.
Rev. Holmen's comments underscore another annoying theme in this debate, the belief -- evidently widespread among professional chaplains -- that only professionals can provide interfaith ministry, or ministry to those with no faith at all. Volunteer chaplains, in this school of thought, can only be trusted to visit those of their own faith traditions. This is the flip side of the belief that volunteers can't be trusted not to proselytize, evangelize, and generally Bible-thump their way through the hospital.

Rev. Holman: I've been trained not to proselytize or evangelize, which aren't activities I'd engage in anyway. I wouldn't proselytize if you paid me. I only started going to church -- to the consternation and alarm of most of my family and friends -- when I was thirty-eight. I've had lots of practice in interfaith and nonfaith dialog; in fact, I'm far more comfortable talking to Wiccan patients, Jewish patients, or atheist patients than I am talking to some extremely conservative Christian patients. Like you, I "minister to people of all faith traditions and none." Like you, "I operate from a theological conviction that the Creator wills and intends for us to become whole persons –- physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally." Like you, I "seek to bring the conviction and hope that healing and wholeness are possible, rather than 'the church' in an official sense."

The staff chaplains at my hospital hold volunteers to these standards. They expect us to function as effectively as professionals, although within a far more limited sphere. Because they expect this, and because they've trained us well, it works. We do a good job.

Which doesn't mean that at least one of us doesn't also need a snarkectomy.


  1. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . . . and if you let is shine in such a way that you illuminate anyone's darkness you are doing good, whether or not you have anyone's imprimatur.

    If you have any doubt, remind yourself what Jesus had to say about church bureaucrats.

  2. I think a lot of the same debate goes on between degreed librarians and paraprofessionals, so I sympathize a little with the other point of view, too. When you're in a profession that's already under-respected, under-valued, under-paid, anything that suggests that you're not needed at all, that your job can be done by people who don't even need money to do it, is going to be pretty threatening.

    But ultimately it has to come down to what's best for the patient, and that means having people like you around.

  3. Beloved, I fear that there's no snarkectomy in CPE. I should know. I have 22 (count 'em - 22) units of CPE (Basic, Advanced, and Supervisory). Chaplains are plenty snarky among themselves, but they have enough respect for PlainViews, or at least enough academic pretense in that context, that you wouldn't see it there.

  4. Hello, all. I'm a little late responding to these comments, for which I apologize.

    Martyn -- Yep. Faith and bureaucracy are often a bad combo.

    Emily -- This debate happens in many fields, and yes, I actually do sympathize with both sides. And I'd never suggest that professional chaplains aren't necessary, although I understand why they might think that some bureaucrats would think so.

    Marshall -- 22 units! Yowza! That's 8,800 hours of CPE, right? When I said 5,000 hours, I thought I was exaggerating! Do you get a Purple Heart for that?

    Seriously, I'm very impressed, but also disappointed that they don't offer snarkectomies. (At least I get my free flu shot every year, even as a volunteer!) I guess I'll have to schedule it as elective surgery, which means that my insurance undoubtedly won't pay.



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