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I’m Rev. Jess Chancey, filling in for John as he is away on sabbatical.
Over the course of my career so far as a hospital chaplain, I have encountered some significant misconceptions around chaplaincy. One that I face most often is that we’re a bad sign. We show up and somebody must be dying. It’s such a common misconception that I’ve known some chaplains to turn their name badges around so that the word “chaplain” doesn’t show. I take great pride in coming into a room and saying, “Hi my name is Jess. I’m the chaplain for this unit,” and taking some time to let the patient know why I’m there. And no, not all of my patients are imminently dying!
Another common misconception is that all chaplains are Christians, and we are all there just to serve other Christians. While the term “chaplain” does have its roots in Christian tradition and terminology, as does the word “chapel,” this is not a uniquely Christian role. We are now a multifaith and interfaith group, where there are many chaplains who are not Christian. I’ve had the joy of working with Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist chaplains. I know of atheist chaplains. None of this is surprising anymore because we are all here to offer interfaith, intercultural care and support. That is part of what it is to be a professional chaplain: to meet patients where they are, regardless of their religious affiliation or belonging. And even chapels have become sites of great multiplicity, as I often see that our most frequent visitors in my hospital chapel are Muslim staff members, who come multiple times every day to offer prayer. So no, we are not just Christians serving Christians.
Building on that, another misconception is that those of us who are Christian are a certain kind of Christian. You know what I mean. The kind of Christian minister who comes to pray, make sure you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior, and leave. If you’re not a Christian, they’ll pray for you to convert, so as to save your soul from the fires of hell. This misconception breaks my heart, because not only do I find that kind of ministry extremely distasteful, it’s also patently unethical in the hospital setting. There are many professional standards prohibiting proselytization in the hospital, by which I mean that a patient stuck in a hospital bed should never, ever be bullied into conversion. And even when we are working with Christian patients, there is so much more to spiritual support than a quick prayer and dash.
Let me tell you a huge thing that makes all the difference between those misconceptions about chaplains and what we really do. Hospital chaplains are not specifically religious workers. Hospital chaplains are spiritual care providers. Religious doctrine and belief can be very important to discuss and understand when it comes to how one’s beliefs affect their medical care, as well as what practices they need to maintain during their hospital stay. But we also go deeper, into the world of spiritual beliefs and attitudes. Conversations about spirituality help us know how they are processing and coping with what they are going through. Because when we talk about spirituality, as opposed to religion, we are talking about that which gives our lives meaning. Whatever it is that keeps us connected to the divine, however we may see it, and whatever it is that keeps us connected to the rest of the world – humanity and everything in existence. And the most important part of being able to explore meaning and spirituality with our patients is understanding our own spirituality, how we find meaning in our own lives.
That introspection is something that professional chaplains are called to do a lot as we practice self-care, like I talked about in my first podcast with you, in order to keep us grounded and continually refuel our own work. Last week, I gave you a sometimes-silly-but-always-sincere list of some of the things I’m grateful for in life. I find that creating a gratitude list like that every now and then serves as a starting point towards finding and making meaning.
I certainly find that sometimes when I’m feeling worn down, burned out, and ready to crawl into a pillow fort, I can watch an episode or two of Star Trek. Sometimes I drop all attempts to be abstemious and just binge a whole season. It might not sound like this relates to spirituality and meaning making, but bear with me! Because here’s what my favorite show does for me: it recharges my battery. It gives my brain a chance to detach from the worries of the day, and at the same time, because Star Trek is known for its social commentary, it also inspires me. I love watching the various bridge crews from the different series, how they work together, and how they care for each other across enormous differences. I especially love Star Trek: The Next Generation, because one of the main characters is the ship’s counselor, Deanna Troi. She has special empathic abilities, and I happen to think she’d make a mighty fine chaplain.
I’m able to lose myself in the stories and characters, let go of specific circumstances and events, and go back to thinking about why I got into chaplaincy in the first place. Because to me, that’s what feels most meaningful in my life: my calling and vocation. I find enormous meaning in connecting with other people, helping them remember how precious they are, how important they are to the people around them. I get to help them reclaim the hope that they have for a meaningful life by reconnecting them with that which gives them that meaning. And as I have this amazing opportunity to connect with you, gentle listener, I want you to remember how precious you are, and how important you are to the people around you. Hold onto hope, and reclaim the meaning in your life. Where do you find it? What feels important and meaningful to you? Maybe start with your own gratitude list, and take some time to build on it, look at it and contemplate it, allowing yourself to let the gratitude expand beyond the items on the list to suffuse life in general, this life with true worth, value, and meaning. I know that when we have this firm grounding in meaning, in our spirituality, we are well charged for every step we take, on this, our journey into the mystic.