The value of not being in charge.

In 2016, I moved away from being a manager of things and leader of people at churches. One of the things I moved toward was being a hospital chaplain. Now I spend about three days a week as a chaplain and the rest of my time on a mix of writing, teaching, coaching, and consulting.

The chaplain part is different from the rest. For a whole shift, I am at the mercy and the service of health and safety of our region. Accidents, strokes, heart attacks, drug overdoses, and many other events inside and outside bodies show up at our place. We don’t cause them, but we get to respond to them.

And I realized one day that I need that sense of being out of control of agendas and plans and goals. Instead of being in control, I need these 10 things:

  1. I need to wrestle with hard questions face to face. People in pain and chronic uncertainty ask important honest questions. The questions aren’t hypothetical. And the pain in the eyes of the people doesn’t let me lean back in a chair and sip coffee and say, “On one hand, this may be true. On the other hand, that may be.”
  2. I need to see death. Because the death rate is lingering at 100%, I need to be reminded that it isn’t a theory. Breathing stops. Hearts stop. That makes conversations about where the coffee maker should be located seem a little less important.
  3. I need to learn short sentences. I think in paragraphs. Paragraphs are hard to sustain when the person in the bed can’t think in abstractions because their pain is at an 8 out of 10. I’m forced to learn to speak concretely and concisely.
  4. I need to do something that cannot scale. Much of my life leans toward increasing impact and audience. The conversations with a person on his fourth heart attack or with the 93-year-old woman who is afraid that the presence of a chaplain means that she’s about to die demand immediacy and presence. And these conversations cannot be recorded to sell or to listen to later.
  5. I need to learn that listening is okay. People often come to me for answers. But the other day a patient said, “I don’t need prayer. I need you to hold my hand.” Some days the best work I can do is to say almost nothing out loud.
  6. I need to learn to take care of myself to care for others. I have never learned well the lesson of stopping in ministry. I have always kept moving, kept thinking, kept doing. And then one day in one eight-hour-shift, four people died within 3 hours. I had to meet with all of the families, work with all of the staff, complete all of the paperwork. The next day I couldn’t think. And I discovered that I must leave time and space for my heart to catch up with my body.
  7. I need to feel helpless. Some days I stand and watch people die. Some days I sit and listen to stories of pervasive cancer. Some evenings I hear stories of people repeatedly ignoring the medical advice that would make them healthier. And I cannot do anything to fix anyone. That’s good for me. It reminds me that most things are out of my hands.
  8. I need to learn to be practically helpful. Offering people water. Holding open doors. Finding the simplest way to give directions. Knowing who to call for which question. Sometimes people need simple things.
  9. I need to learn to be a small part of a big team. I often try to figure things out myself. But in an ER room, I have a very small, very specific role that needs to be done seamlessly. Learning to focus on a piece of my craft is challenging.
  10. I need to say thank you. In our hospital culture, every interaction between coworkers is punctuated with “thank you.” Every one. Many people are much better than I am at this practice. And yet it is a fundamentally spiritual practice. So I’m learning.


Before You Walk In Copyright © 2021 by Jon Charles Swanson. All Rights Reserved.

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