Saturday, January 31, 2009

It's All a Matter of Perspective

Law and Gospel posted a couple of days ago about a friend's critique of her chaplaincy work. "You're a gas station attendant offering a quick fill-up," her friend tells her, as opposed to what she might be in parish ministry with the long-term relationships it produces.

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.

Secondly, chaplains are in posession of time. When Musical Friend's husband died in Giant Famous Hospital last spring, her Methodist minister was with her almost 24/7 for that horrific week-end, at one point leaving to preach his three Sunday morning sermons and then coming right back. But my observations tell me that her experience was the exception to the rule, particularly in a big-city teaching hospital. Many of our patients had traveled a considerable distance for their care, making it virtually impossible for their clergy to visit them. (The exception? The Nazarenes! I could go into a pre-op unit at 6:00 a.m and be almost guaranteed of finding at least one Nazarene, often one who had just driven 100 miles, sitting with his parishioner.) Others had pastoral visits on occasion and usually for short periods -- people employed by congregations, unless specifially for pastoral care, just don't have the time (or perhaps the inclination) to hang out in the hospital. A chaplain not only has the time -- he also has the time to follow up; having ruminated over a conversation for awhile, he can go back upstairs a few hours later to pick it up again, perhaps with some new insight gleaned from another situation he's encountered in the interim.

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.


mompriest said...

Well, it is a terrible metaphor, a gas station ministry - but on the other hand we all need gas stations....

I thought I was going to go into hospital chaplancy, it was my first sense of call, but I ended up, for better or for worse, in the parish. I have found parish ministry to be everything I thought it would be - difficult, filled with either placid or angry people or biased people who struggle with female leadership and female authority. but its been good too and has felt like the right direction for me. go figure.

hospital ministry: a few years ago I was very ill and spent 11 days in the hospital - I had lots of "visits" from clergy colleagues and friends, but no visits from the hospital chaplain (I wonder if they decided not to visit knowing I am an Episcopal Priest?) - but had one visited I am sure I would have told that person things I would tell no one else.

Also, I worked in a hospital as a lay person doing ministry for a number of years and I've been in the parish for a few more - I know BOTH to be important and vital.

You bring wonderful gifts to ministry either may be hard to trust this, but God will lead retrospect, despite all I've been through, that much I trust.

giggles said...

Wow....profound for much thought.... to which I feel moved to add my two cents worth.... As a PK (he is Episcopal, now retired) I gleaned from conversations and conflicts my parents had, my dad did not enjoy pastoral care visits, and I think he may have avoided most of them at much cost....

When I returned to church-going, after having left early in my teens until I was pregnant with my first child twelve years ago, the pastor there also had a strong aversion to that part of his ministry... Yet, I believe part of the job description (of the parish priest) was doing the hospital visits,as difficult and uncomfortable as they may have been.... So if they aren't gonna do it...then I would ask "Who is?" And now, you are contemplating being the answer to that question.... I agree with you, premuim gas and a stack o' coupons...!

Kathryn J said...

I think you would be amazing at either one of them and the people with whom you pray will be fortunate indeed.

Anonymous said...

I'm exploring this possibility as well... moving from the parish... into chaplaincy. At "church"... I get no energy... nothing but stress. But yesterday... I went to visit and elderly member at the hospital. When the physical therapist... came in to get her to walk for a while... I realized... she had "leaked." I found sheets... and a dry gown. I changed the bed... I helped her get dressed in the gown... and later into her clothes to go home. No stress... no joy... no thank you. But I'm pretty damn sure... she saw God through me loving her. As far as the parishioners... well... I think they just see me as a pain in their collective asses.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I don't mean to be flippant, but I always think that when it comes to major life decisions, we know when we need to know. I believe that a lot of internal processing goes on that we are fairly unaware of. Some of that is probably the work of the Holy Spirit and some is our own subconscious, but at some point, I trust that you will know which of these paths is right. Both are worthwhile.

Jennifer said...

Blessings to you as you discern what's next.
I think you'd offer a great deal in either seetting.

bean said...

it was a rude comment about the idea that giving someone who is at his/her most vulnerable a caring ear and counsel to equate it to being a 'gas station attendant.' it's a comment from someone who sees connections to power. i'd have been thrilled to have met you during my hospital stays. don't play other people's what is right for you. it is, after all, your life and your time.

Sophia said...

What an ignorant, hurtful thing to say....Hospital chaplaincy is a tremendous need and a great service -- in our various hospital related tragedies we have generally had either none or damaging experiences. I have thought of getting more training and experience in that field but not sure if it would be too demanding long term. I think you would be absolutely amazing at it.

Good in the parish too, of course--but a lot more people want to do that as far as I can see. And there are so many people who will never or no longer go to church and they have such spiritual hunger and thirst, not to mention things to teach clergy--many of whom mostly talk and rarely listen, and if so listen to the safe little flock of those who can tolerate church.

Yeah, I've got some attitude today.

The Unlikely Conversationalist: said...

Your comment, "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..." speaks to a great truth about ministry I learned in CPE 11.5 years ago: Ministry is never done. Even ministry in the most stable congregation with the longest lasting staff is never completed; at least not by us humans.

We are called to carry something with us that lasts far longer than our lives. The Word of God is the only fast acting long lasting balm I know of for the world today.

Keep on spreading the Word and don't worry about the harvest. When the time is right you might be sent to get it or another might be sent to reap where you've sown the Word.

Anonymous said...

If you need gas, nothing else will do but a gas station, right?

I just had the feeling last summer that you might have found your calling in hospital work.

I will be interested to watch and read as things develop here.

You are always in my good thoughts.


bean said...

by the way, i've been thinking a lot about this entry - and have no idea if you go back and read comments on blog posts that are a few days or entries old. i know that a lot of your 'friends' on here are very religious or exploring careers in ministry. as you know, i am not. i have, essentially, rejected organized religion and have private beliefs. i'm much more interested in a better world - not a better world through religion. (e.g. i don't think you need religion to be a better person).
BUT - but but but ....i respect your choices and your deeply felt convictions. AND...AND AND AND...what i do want to convey with this comment is that i feel that anyone who adminsters a listening ear to anyone in hospital - well, that's automatically an amazing thing. really, more than an amazing thing. i've been thinking about just how vulnerable people are when they are there...and their families. i rarely use this word, but it would surely be a blessing to have someone like you doing such a thing. i think you must be a very good listener.