When I did my chaplaincy internship this past summer, our supervisor often reflected upon the intimate conversations with which our patients would honor us. "They will tell you things they would never tell their pastor," she said. "The elder in charge of the capital campaign is probably not going to mention to her visiting pastor that she no longer believes in God, but she will discuss her quandry at some length with the chaplain who stops by late at night before her surgery."
On the other end of the spectrum, my pastoral care professor, while holding up chaplaincy work as an important and speicalized calling, often says that when asked to complete surveys asking for "the best preachers in America, " he always writes in "the local parish pastor." "It's the pastor who knows and cares for the congregation," he says, who is their best preacher, "not the guest preacher with the resume of homiletics awards." And, he emphasizes, a pastor visiting a parishoner in the hospital walks into the room with a completely different perspective than the chaplain making his daily rounds ~ the implication being that the patient will tell the parish pastor things he would never tell the roaming chaplain.
Both are right, of course. I did have some astonishingly wide-open and candid conversations with hospital patients, family members, physicians, and nurses last summer, some of them with people I saw once or twice for less than an hour, others with folks with whom I spent time daily over the course of several weeks as they awaited a transplant or sat with a sedated amd dying loved one or cared for patients in crisis. I also had some unsatisfying conversations, and was always left with the sense of having played only a brief role in a story, the outcome to which I would never be privy.
Parish ministry does bring with it the satisfaction of long-term relationships. And it is true that the parish preacher does have the advantage of a long view from which to preach: she knows her congregation, and she has a vision for its future; she knows its individual members, and she sees immediately when she looks out from the pulpit on Sunday morning who has just joyfully welcomed a new son-in-law into the family, and who has just buried a child. Preaching in the hospital is a bit different: my brief experience indicates that the congregation is considerably smaller, and might include a family member driven to a service for the first time in decades by a crisis unfolding several floors above and a surgeon who shows up whenever her schedule permits. (The advantage, I suppose, is that the topic is always the same: life is precious and scary, suffering is pervasive, bad things happen to every kind of person, and so, sometimes, do miracles.)
I am giving a lot of thought to hospital chaplaincy as my long term call. My reasons are numerous, but two of them jumped out at me as I thought about Law and Gospel's post. For one thing, many people in the hospital, whether patients or staff, have no clergy to visit with them. They have no ties to a religious institution; perhaps they have no "official" religious beliefs. I developed a number of relationships with individuals who fell into that category. Serious illness has a way of bringing questions about the meaning of life and death and pain to the fore, and people with no connection to a religious community in "the outside world" find their way quickly into conversation with people wearing ID badges indicating that they are comfortable with the exploration of those questions.
So -- I don't think hospital chaplaincy is gas station ministry. And if it is, it comes with premium gas and a stack of coupons.