How I came to be a hospital chaplain.

I was standing in the hallway of a hospital, holding a patient’s chart.

The chart is a 5-ring binder, with thick plastic covers. It is a paper record of the hospital life of a patient. It follows a patient wherever they are in the hospital.

This patient was getting a CT-scan. More accurately, the patient was supposed to be getting a scan. At this moment, the patient was getting CPR. While I held the patient’s paper life, the medical staff were working hard to hold onto the patient’s actual life.

While they were working, I starting thinking about my own life. In all my years in higher education and in pastoral ministry, this isnā€™t where I ever expected to stand. I enjoyed teaching, both in the college classroom and eventually in church group. I was effective at parts of being an administrator, first in higher education and then in churches.

But in November, 2015, it had become clear to me that it was time to change jobs. Or better, to resign my job as an executive pastor without knowing what was next. It was, Nancy said, like Abraham. Told to move. Not told where.[1]

So I resigned, effective in ten weeks. We started thinking and praying about what would be next.

I saw a job for Staff Chaplain at a local hospital. I looked through the requirements and the duties. I didn’t have a theological degree, but I did have a decade and a half of pastoring. I didnā€™t have the formal chaplaincy training, but I had made hospital calls and offered hours of counsel and conducted funerals. It looked like something that I could do, in the meantime at least. The listing said that the position was PRN. I looked it up. Pro re nata is a Latin term, used in medical circles to mean part-time. On call. As needed. When necessary.

Something would be better than nothing. I applied. I heard nothing.

We kind of forgot about it, actually, assuming that the position had been filled.

Until I got a call in January.

I went to an interview where I started to discover that what I thought chaplainsĀ did was about 25 percent of being a chaplain. I discovered that the other 75 percent could be learned. And I discovered that I liked the people I met.

The next step in the interview process was a four-hour walk-along with a current chaplain. Just to see what it was Iike.

It was lots of walking. There was no praying, but some talking. It was some responding to trauma arriving in the ER.

It was wonderful.

I was offered and took the job.

The training was 80 hours of following several chaplains. I learned that there are individual voices. I learned that there are many similar situations, but no identical ones. I learned that the people who have been chaplains for years still have events that happen only once or twice a year. As a result, chaplains are constantly learning, constantly discerning, constantly preparing. I learned that being a chaplain is a blend of running and charting and waiting and listening. And sometimes holding a patientā€™s chart, while the other 15 people in the room do everything they can to preserve the life so there is something to write in the chart.

ChaplaincyĀ is living in a way to be available PRN. When necessary.


  1. The story of God calling Abraham to move starts in Genesis 12. Unlike Abraham, I received no promise of becoming a great nation.


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

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