The Healing Spirituality of Hospital Chaplains
These dependable guides find a way to help other people in the most challenging moments of life
“We don’t really get called for the good news.”
Those are the sober words of Rev. Amy Greene, director of spiritual care at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, in an interview with LifeZette. “We don’t really get called for the miraculous recovery,” she added. “People tend to call us when things haven’t gone as well.”
That is likely a vast understatement. A hospital staff chaplain plays a key support role in the spiritual guidance and emotional upkeep of patients in a clinical setting. Unlike a pastoral chaplain in a congregational setting, a hospital chaplain most likely steps into a patient's life at one of the most difficult times ever.
Chaplains make themselves available to give support to families and staff and to be a hand for someone to hold.
"Attending to people at their absolute worst moments is primary for us," Greene said. "It's sort of our first duty."
Even so — hospital chaplains do have some joyous and rewarding moments on the job.
"We all come from our own particular religious backgrounds, but we're not here to push our own religion," Greene said. "We're here for everyone whether they're religious or not."
If you've ever been to visit a loved one in the hospital and the first person to meet you in the hospital wings is the chaplain — you know something is not right. "My chaplains are [present] at every single death," Greene said.
Hospital chaplains, in addition to their other duties, are there to deliver good wishes and blessings to the family members of patients.
"We're there for the people involved," said Greene.
"This family hasn't lost this loved one before," Greene says she will tell the hospital's student chaplains. "Every single loss is a new one, and every single loss is a unique one. The strength of being able to stand with people in that incredible suffering and not get swept away by it — that actually takes some training and some work."
Hospital chaplains working together in any given chaplaincy program may share a variety of faith backgrounds.
"I'm talking to you from an office where I work literally with a priest, a minister, and a rabbi," Rabbi Ben Lanckton, a staff chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told LifeZette. The "interfaith nature" is one of the most satisfying parts of his job, Lanckton said.
"I work with ministers, priests, imams … One of our chaplains is an ethical humanist, so she's officially an agnostic or atheist," he said.
"Even though I'm a rabbi, if a patient who's Catholic requests a chaplain on one of my floors, I go see that patient first and assess what the need is," Lanckton said. "For probably more than three-quarters of the cases, [people] just want to talk with someone who will listen sympathetically and spiritually about their situation. They don't really need [someone of] their own denomination."
The chaplain can refer the patient to another chaplain if a specific faith denomination is requested. Lanckton's assigned unit covers the pre- and post-surgery patients.
"As a chaplain, it's all about listening," Lanckton said.
"The toughest situation we face is when we get a blunt question about the meaning of suffering," Lanckton said. "And someone says to me, ‘Chaplain, why is God doing this to me?' [or] ‘Why does God allow suffering in the world?'"
The chaplains help patients and families try to find meaning in what's happening.
Hospital chaplaincy is "a sense of calling to the whole world," said Rev. Greene of Cleveland Clinic.