Ministry Lessons from Hospital Chaplaincy

Years ago, before my ordination to the diaconate, I chose hospital chaplaincy as my call to servant ministry. Specifically, I chose to engage in love’s work in real people’s lives. Three foundational experiences shaped this call.

Discerning a Call to Chaplaincy

The first formative experience that shaped my call to hospital chaplaincy was an early introduction through the Episcopal Church to the International Order of Saint Luke the Physician. This healing ministry of clergy and laity is based on the belief that Holy Scriptures set forth healing as a continuing and essential part of the ministry committed to the church by Jesus Christ.

The second impetus that shaped my call to hospital chaplaincy came from my immersion in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). CPE provided a foundation that has supported me in a variety of settings, including adult, nursing home, and, primarily, pediatric settings.

The third driving force that shaped my call was my long-standing commitment to our baptismal vows, particularly the vow that says, “I will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305).

Each of these influences has impacted my desire to love and serve God by offering a welcoming, faith-filled presence to individuals, families, and communities seeking healing and reconciliation.

Three Words of Advice

Reflecting on these early experiences, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the medical director of our hospital’s newborn intensive care department. When I asked him what he expected of our chaplains, he replied simply, “I expect you to show up, listen, and tell the truth.” This advice has proven to be a powerful affirmation of patients, families, and those who care for them. In my experience, it also invites a God presence.

1. Showing Up

Showing up to visit a sick patient sounds like a perfectly reasonable expectation for an on-call chaplain. Yet the thought of heading home after an exhausting day of visiting patients also sounds appealing. These were my thoughts one early morning after I spent the previous night in the hospital with a family whose child was in surgery. It was 7:00 a.m. when I received a request for a visit from an eight-year-old boy with leukemia. He had come to the hospital to receive palliative care because he was no longer a candidate for treatment.

Wearily I hiked up the stairs and found the boy in bed playing a card game. After introducing myself, I walked closer to the bed and shook his hand. He seemed pleased to have company. Though I never mentioned being in the hospital all night, he looked me over as closely as my mother might have when I had come home late. That was when I asked him, “How could the two of us together make your day a good one?” Without hesitation, he said, “I would like to start it by saying a prayer for you.” It was a prayer that I’ve never forgotten.

2. Listening

The second directive offered by the neonatologist can be life-changing for patients, families, and members of the entire care team: listening. It’s a foundational skill that is essential for all chaplains, but listening attentively to someone’s emotional needs is not easy. We tend to be a culture of “fixers.” When things go wrong, we have a habit of sharing lots of ideas of how to make things go right. Though well-meaning friends and family members might be tempted to surround a patient with a suitcase full of solutions and directives, this is not always helpful.

I once visited a young mother who had just lost her baby during her delivery. As I entered the room filled with well-intentioned friends and relatives, I heard a woman say to the grieving mother, “Oh, Louise, you are a young, healthy woman. You just need to forget all this and go home and get pregnant again.”* To the contrary, the mother would likely have benefited more from those in the room quietly listening to her needs and offering a supportive prayer and a reminder that her friends would be there when she needs them.

3. Telling the Truth

The third pastoral value offered by the neonatologist—tell the truth—applies to each member of a care team. Sometimes a medical crisis brings many people to the site. Doctors, nurses, custodians, medical techs, family members, and others are all likely to show up when an emergency room event involves someone for whom they have provided care. When this happens, a chaplain must be a skilled pastor of people and groups. This chaplain must also be self-aware of their ministry and how it impacts others, including patients, families, and team members.

Such an event occurred in the emergency room at the hospital where I worked. Parents of a baby diagnosed with sudden infant death syndrome rushed into the hospital with their unconscious child. The care team, who had become familiar with the family, immediately went to work. The room began to fill with concerned others who had provided care for the mother’s late-in-life pregnancy. In this case, the care was not successful. The heartbreaking truth was the team was not able to save the baby.

A painful silence followed before the father turned to me and asked if he could baptize his baby boy. “Yes” was my answer, and I rushed off to get everything he needed for the baptism. He then took his wife’s hand and thanked her for the blessing of their life together. I held the prayer book for him as he gently baptized the child and then lifted him high above his head and offered him to God. After that, both the father and mother walked around the room and thanked each person who had helped keep their baby alive as long as possible.

Though this happened some time ago, the pastoral experience it fostered continues to touch me, and no doubt everyone who was present that day. It illuminated a simple truth: We need one another. We need one another in our mourning, our problem solving, our fears, our faith journeys. It doesn’t matter how gifted, wealthy, or powerful we are. We simply can’t go it alone. None of these qualities keep us from getting sick or from losing our homes in wildfires or tornados. None of these qualities guarantees we won’t lose our job, our life savings, or our child. That day has served as a reminder that each of us is called to be a loving community—not sentimental naïve love but a practical, unpolished kind that shows up, listens, and tells the truth.

Putting These Words into Practice

Imagine how much our world might heal if we consistently practiced these. Imagine what I would have missed if I had slipped out of the hospital and gone home to bed instead of visiting a dying eight-year-old boy. Think of a time when you have “shown up” even though you might have preferred to stay away. Consider the consequences of not listening carefully to a troubled friend or a family who just lost a beloved grandparent. Remember a situation that prompted you to offer solutions rather than to simply listen. Think about how you might tell the truth by telling a gravely ill or troubled friend that you love them. Each of these experiences offers a rich opportunity to explore values that enhance our ministries and the quality of our lives.

*Note: The name of the person mentioned in the story has been changed.

Featured image is by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

  • Mary Farr (she/her/hers)

    Rev, Deacon Mary Farr, a longtime pediatric and adult hospital chaplain, has devoted years to exploring the worlds of hope, healing, and humor. Mary has published five books including her most recent, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” She has written or presented for a variety of audiences including: the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the Chautauqua Institution, CaringBridge, and the Minnesota Network of Hospice and Palliative Care. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Mary completed her divinity studies in the Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire, Wisconsin where she was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 1983. She received a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Catherine University, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Mary is currently engaged in faith development and funeral ministry at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota.

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