Just finished the 8th week of my stint as a chaplain at a local pediatric hospital. I have been processing lately what kind of expectations come with the title chaplain. It’s not always common knowledge what a chaplain is or does. When I introduce myself to a patient or a family member, there are a few common reactions. Sometimes they show immediate recognition. Sometimes their eyes flash to my ID badge and they understand when they see the words “Spiritual Care Services” below my the title of chaplain. Some offer only a blank stare.
I’ve found it important to do what I can to ensure that people understand why I’m in their room and what I’m their for because (a) I want them to know that I’m not a doctor (especially if there is a language obstacle) and (b) I want them to know that I am there for them (and not just for certain types of patients with certain types of spiritual beliefs). So, I will usually ask some form of the question Do you know what a chaplain is? if I sense that there might be some confusion.
The responses vary. Most often, the answer is “no.” One 11 year old responded “that’s kind of like church, right?” Sometimes the response is “Yes, thank you for coming Father.” Once, it was “It’s about time you came; let’s start praying!”
Part of the difficulty in the question is that I don’t really even know what a chaplain is. If I went with the dictionary, I’d just say that a chaplain is “a member of the clergy attached to a private chapel, institution, ship, branch of the armed forces, etc.” But that answer is boring and impersonal. It separates me (clergy) from them (non-clergy).
So, in a sense, the answer to the question that has best helped me understand my own role is
“Me, a chaplain is me. You are here, and here I am.“
I don’t tell that to people (at least, not worded like that), but it’s the truth. Yes, there are resources I can offer – I can help you if you want a Bible or a rosary. I can help you if you want your child baptized or if you want a book or a toy. But one of the main things that I have grown to realize is that the main resource I can offer is…me. I can get you “stuff,” but I am also offering myself. My ears, my eyes, my hands. My smile. Sometimes, my words; as much as possible, my heart. It is an incarnational kind of ministry, and it has given me a new understanding of what it means to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus in this world.
And that is not easy. It’s daunting. It’s overwhelming. But it’s good.