How is practicing chaplaincy like practicing medicine?

I have a couple of good friends who are physicians. And who have patience with me.  So I sent them an email one night:

“What does it mean to you to have a medical practice or to practice medicine? Not the Google answer, yours.”

Something I had been reading made me wonder about the phrase “practicing chaplaincy”. Used, I mean, in the way we talk about practicing medicine or practicing law. Before I reflected too far, I wanted to hear from people who used those words.

“To have a medical practice and to practice medicine means that I have an opportunity to care for people’s medical, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs, applying the knowledge of the science of medicine, the experience gained over thirty-three years since graduation from medical school, and my understanding of people’s need for a relationship with God, to each novel encounter with patients.”[1]

“The practice of medicine is the constant refinement and honing, development and improvement of the things a physician was trained to do. I suspect it (like law) is an acknowledgment that medicine can never be mastered, so it must be practiced.”[2]

Their definitions were helpful. In each case, there is a professional component. There are standards and expectations and best practices and competencies. Though it is possible to be humble about it, there is an assumed mastery of a set of skills and practices.

But also, in each case, there is the sense of practice as repetition, as preparation. Each interaction between a patient and a physician has uniqueness, nuance, individuation. The whole life of the person and the person’s lineage and the person’s environment can shape the physical and mental health.

I used to believe that medicine was science. Now I believe that it’s as much an art, pursued in a scientific way.

When I think of chaplaincy, there is a professional component. There are standards for all healthcare professionals. There are best practices in how we do our work, how we approach conversations. There are even professional associations willing to bring professional structure to chaplaincy.

But there is also the sense of practice as repetition, as preparation. Each interaction has uniqueness, reflecting the diversity of being created in the image of God. There is always a call to listen, to hear, to discern. Our interactions have much in common with each other, and each are special.

There is another commonality between medicine and chaplaincy as practices. When it comes to medicine, almost all of us humans think we are capable of practicing medicine on our selves and loved ones. We are adept at ignoring what physicians say, thinking we know ourselves better than any expert. Or we try to figure out our health on our own, researching on the internet, experimenting.

The same thing happens in spiritual health, in spiritual well-being. Many humans hesitate to listen to experts. We search on the internet for spiritual wisdom. We pick and choose who to listen to, what to follow, how to believe.

So what would it mean to practice chaplaincy? On one hand, it calls us to acknowledge that there is an expertise we have as we walk into patient rooms, consult rooms, and chapels. We may be humble servants of God, but even humble servants have competencies that are needed. On the other hand, it calls us to be learning, to find–in each interaction–the ways our understanding of God, ourselves, and each other can grow.

We cannot coast. We cannot quit.


  1. Richard Toupin.
  2. Lee Warren.


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

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