Learning a way of (chaplaincy) life

I was several days into training as a hospital chaplain. I was scrambling. It had been a long time since I learned a new role. Everything that had been a habit about work changed. Different direction to drive. Different building. Different conversations. Different organizational structure.

Everything changed.

That’s how it felt for a couple of days. Until I realized that I knew some of the people. It’s what happens when you live in a community for a couple decades. I knew some of the conversational contexts. It’s what happens when you talk with people in pain and doubt and need for several years. I recognized the hierarchy. It’s what happens when you work in different non-profit organizational structures.

And I realized that I was still learning what those around me have been practicing for much longer. I was in that middle space of knowing some things but learning a new way to live with them.

Because I started learning to be a chaplain during Lent, I was more aware than ever of the challenge of adjusting a way of life. In Lent, we’re struggling to learn how to incorporate our various commitments into the flow of our lives. And it feels a little awkward, a little like guaranteed failure. But we’re not failing. We’re learning. We’re adjusting our lives to make room for the changes that will bring us more abundant life.

In my training, I learned to ask for help. I learned to ask questions. I learned to watch how other chaplains handled similar situations differently.

And I started to impose my own internal order on the processes.

  • RACE is what I need to do when we are called to trauma situations. Respond. Assess. Care. Explain.
  • PEACE is what I need to bring when I go to a room for more routine things. Pray. Enter. Assess. Care. Exit.

Before I can bring help to the situation, I need to bring order to my heart. And my new acronyms helped.

Lent can be helped by the same kind of asking, the same kind of developing systems. And with the same kind of praying that is going into my training.

Several months after I started, I felt like I started over. Suddenly I felt like I didn’t know any of the answers. So I started to unpack my feelings.

I realized that the things that had once consumed my attention were now habits. I knew how to get from one part of the hospital to another. I knew how to fill out the paperwork, how to enter information into our electronic records.

Now I was aware of a new level of questions. What are the best ways to apply that idea to this situation? How can I care for souls in this crisis as opposed to that one?

I’m starting to be comfortable with the tension between not knowing everything and knowing some things. Rather than resolve that tension by scolding myself for my ignorance, I’m learning to be comfortable as a learner.

How to be a great guide.

I often walk people from an Emergency Department room to the Heart Catheterization Lab waiting area. The shortest route is the back way, the coworker route. But when they are done and have to find their car, they will be lost. So here’s how I help them.

Orient them to outside. On one side of our building is an interstate highway. I always use that as a directional anchor.

Find the building’s main hall. When we cross it, I stop our whole group in the middle of the hall and point it out.

Connect them to where their car is. I ask where they parked when they came to Emergency. I use that as the basis for my directions.

Tell them where food is. In our case, the main dining room is on the main hall. But wherever it is, mentioning the location is a way to remind them that they need to eat.

Shut up. They don’t need a tour of the building. They need to get back to their car.



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

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