Monday, February 19, 2007

Clergy Night

Last night's hospital shift was very busy. My final census was 97, which is a record. Obviously, those don't all represent substantial conversations, just people to whom I made myself available: the pastoral-care department needs to keep statistics, like everyone else. But it was still a tiring shift.

In one of those statistically improbable patterns that seem to happen so often in the ED, where we'll have a run of patients with the same complaint or the same background, four of the patients I spoke to last night were retired clergy.

I've written here before about my struggles with status issues in the hospital, and also about my difficulties around ordination. All of this guarantees that talking to patients who are ordained clergy tends to throw me into an acute state of impostor syndrome, especially when said clergy are fellow Episcopalians.

In my most awkward encounter, several months ago, both the patient and his wife were Episcopal priests -- and personal acquaintances. The wife had helped interview me for ordination. She was also a chaplain with several units of CPE who had made it quite clear that she didn't think I should drop the program. I prayed with them, but the entire time (and I'm sure I'm wrong about this, since she certainly had more important things on her mind) I felt like she was watching me with the wincing forbearance of an adult waiting for a child to finish sawing her way through a really painful violin recital.

And then there was the Lutheran pastor, with her mother in the ED, who seemed to consider it her duty to convince me to quit my job and attend seminary to become a priest. This happened back when I was still actively in process for the diaconate; I kept trying to explain that deacons are a full and equal order and that I didn't want to go to seminary, thank you, but this very determined lady was on a mission from God. She wasn't about to listen to my trivial objections about, oh, having to keep working so I could pay my mortgage.

One of my best visits, on the other hand, was with a patient being watched by several corrections-department guards, who told me shyly that he was a chaplain in the prison. He was delighted to have me pray with him, and we blessed each other's work and talked about prison ministry. I don't think he was ordained; in any case, there was no question of either of us pulling rank. We were both doing work we loved, and we respected each other.

Last night's clergy were a mixed bag. The first was a retired Episcopal priest from another diocese, whose wife peered at me and demanded, "Where are you from? Are you from a seminary?" No, ma'am. I'm sure she didn't intend the question to make me feel defensive, but it did anyway.

The second and third patients beamed at me and were very happy to have me there; I suspect it helped that neither of them were from my denomination, and wouldn't have had the vocabulary to question my qualifications even if they'd been inclined to.

The fourth patient also wasn't from my denomination. He was 100 years old and had worked in ordained ministry for sixty years before retiring at age 90. No one was with him in the hospital. I sat next to his bed, and we had a long talk about his work and his family and the changes he's seen over the last century. He remembers when people used horses instead of cars; his first car, a Chevrolet, cost $750. "You've gone from seeing people ride horses to seeing a man walk on the moon," I told him, and he smiled and laughed, and we pondered what amazing things will happen in the next hundred years, finally agreeing that we probably can't even imagine them.

He'd been a missionary, a church pastor, and -- for ten years -- a hospital chaplain in another state. "I think my work is what's kept me alive so long," he told me simply. It was obvious that he loved what he did and that he loved people, and grieved whatever divided them from each other and from God. And when he talked to me about my own work, he made me feel as if we were equals, even though he's more than twice my age and has more experience in ministry than I'll ever have. He'd tell me some story and then say, "You know what that's like from the work you do." He used his own experience to affirm mine, instead of discounting it.

I want to be like him when I grow up: especially if I ever am ordained, but even if I'm not.


  1. What a shift...from tiring to extraordinary. Sounds like you were going through the "stages of the ordination cross" and ended with affirmation.

  2. "I want to be like him when I grow up: especially if I ever am ordained, but even if I'm not."

    Gosh, me too.

    Re: the Lutheran pastor: What's up with people like that? Grr. I mean, I would *like* to believe that some calls are from God, and that *sometimes* a wise person can genuinely discern your call and say "You should do this, you really should!" I could use the help. But then you see so many Christians who want to badger you into some life-course or ministry, out of some weird psychological needs of their own. (Like maybe assuaging their doubts about their own "calling?" Living vicariously through another?)

    Don't worry about your mortgage or making ends meet, they say, God will take care of that, if you only have faith. Um, yeah, that would be more convincing if I hadn't seen people fail miserably because they took equally half-assed advice.

    Maybe that's the only really approved-of vocabulary in some churches (accept your calling! sacrifice everything! get to work in an official ministry!) so when people really need to express other things (like their own problems) they end up telling you to go to seminary instead. Grumble mumble...

    Don't mind me, I haven't had to put up with one-fiftieth of the trouble you've put up with the whole 'calling' thing (I know 'cause I've read some of your posts about it!) I'm just venting some of my confusion over the issue of my own 'call,' whatever that might be. ;-)

  3. JSD: Well put!

    Elliot: Good luck with your discernment process! I think all of us have some kind of calling, even if it's to gardening or book collecting or competitive Scrabble. Figuring out what that is occupies the better part of a lifetime for most people, I think. And yes, the human voices yammering in the background can definitely get in the way!

  4. These are great stories, Susan. I love this post!

  5. your conversation with the 100 year old and the prison chaplain both sound amazing. I think you can tell when God is really working through someone.

    And as someone who's had another type of calling, I still feel like a fraud a lot of the time. The people who really think they've got their S*%T together are the ones you have to look out for.


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