By Bridget Deegan-Krause
Over the years I have listened to the many stories of the ways we as NACC chaplains tend to the needs of our institutions, with some in Catholic institutional ministry serving in the formal role of Mission Leader. Titled or not, most chaplains claim the care of their institutions as an integral part of their ministries. What we hold in our institutional care deserves a closer look as we consider the value of chaplaincy.
An extraordinary image of the apostle Paul from The Saint John’s Bible comes to mind. In a pieta-like stance, Paul holds, with seeming tenderness, the shadowy but distinct forms of buildings. If we take a closer look at what Paul holds, we will see that these buildings are broken.
I recently asked a group of ministers to reflect upon this image with a question: “What are you called to hold for your institution?” Their responses included the following: “I hold space.” “I hold silence.” “I hold pain.” “I hold hope.” “Sometimes I hold questions that do not yet have answers.” “Sometimes I hold a torch.”
Hard to Hold
This is a lot to hold, even for a strong chaplain. Our institutions can act in ways that are impersonal and self-serving. Human creations, so often broken and corruptible, our institutions let us down. Indeed, which one of us has not known pain and even death inflicted by institutions?
And yet institutions are what we have to sustain a common life. In his analysis of the contemporary church, A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels reminds us, “Even Jesus relied on institutions to announce his message and propel it into the world.” When they are at their best, institutions express something of the Trinitarian God best known in relationship. Regina Bechtle, S.C., in her wonderful essay on the spirituality of institutions, asserts, “Organizations have a privileged role to play as partners in God’s creative action in the world. Through them, God’s dream of wholeness and right relationship for all creation can come closer to reality.” As our salvation is somehow tied up in a communal enterprise (Revelation 22), we are called to look again to what is redeemable, and to help our institutions remember the bigger picture of which they are a part.
Holding our story
Perhaps the most important way that chaplains supportively hold their institutions is by helping institutions remember who they are. As chaplains we facilitate the holy act of remembering, with its rich scriptural mandate, any time we direct the attention of our colleagues to our foundational stories – the stories of sponsors, saints, unsung heroes, or any great shoulders we stand upon – and explicitly make a connection between where we come from, who we are and how we must act. This also happens in the holy work of calling attention to organizational “guiding behaviors” or “cultural attributes,” of helping our organizations discuss a shared mission and vision, or exploring the gospel roots of the powerful value words we claim, like reverence, stewardship, or justice.
Some of our greatest work as chaplains is found in the efforts we make to help our institutions recognize themselves as part of a bigger story of living, dying and rising. We can help our organizations know they are held safe in the paschal mystery whenever we create a ritual to close a facility or tend a community through mergers and “rightsizing.” Sometimes we simply hold hope, recognizing that the chaos of this moment is not the end of the story, nor does it constitute the whole of who we are as a people who participate in the healing ministry of Jesus.
A different kind of love
Most of can easily make the case that the tender holding of a dying patient’s hand is part of the healing mission of the institution. But where is the sacred to be found in the overhaul of an accounting system, or the careful crafting of an HR policy? The capacity for holding the bigger picture of organizational life has led some chaplains to develop administrative skills so they can expand the care they provide to include the management of resources, the solicitation of funds, and the crafting of curricula, work plans and websites.
Many chaplains claim the sacredness of this administrative side of their work, along with their efforts to develop their capacity to do it. In her work on the spirituality of administration, theologian Ann Garrido observes how the wide variety of tasks that are part of administration not only pose an intellectual challenge, but “can also be a spiritual exercise that stretches the heart, developing one’s capacity for a different kind of love.”
This different kind of love may move us closer to the paschal mystery in our work. There may be a dying to self not only as we submit ourselves to training programs or as we take on new responsibilities, but also as we venture into courageous conversations within a corporate culture that has much that is broken and even deadly about it. Carefully timed questions become holy queries: “Who needs to be held accountable?” “What must we allow to die?” “Who is missing from this conversation?” “How is our mission at risk?”
Gathering the pieces
As we hold these questions and gaze upon the broken institutions in our care, we may find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with Jesus. In a provocative image that complements the pieta-like image of Paul, Matthew’s Jesus compares himself to a mother hen who longs to gather up her children, as he looks upon his beloved, broken Jerusalem, an institution that “kills its prophets” and knows not its own power (Matthew 23:37). As we look upon the scattered, broken fragments of our institutions, we too may feel like the mother hen who longs to gather it all up in one big loving embrace.
At times NACC chaplains struggle mightily to continue to love institutions that forget their own power. It is exhausting to hold and love anything that forgets who it is and acts, as institutions sometimes do, in self-destructive ways. A chaplain may wonder, am I strong enough? Do I have enough memory, enough courage, enough love to keep reminding this broken institution of its beauty and true power, and the bigger story of which it is a part?
It’s a lot to hold, even for a strong chaplain. But we need not hold all this alone. We have strong, loving, like-minded colleagues, brothers and sisters within NACC and beyond, with whom we can share the load, who remind us of who we are and what we are capable of, even when we start to forget. Most of all, we have our God who tenderly holds all of us, our institutions included, in a loving embrace much bigger than we can imagine.
1 C.f. Bechtle, Regina, S.C, “Giving the Spirit a Home: Reflections on the Spirituality of Institutions,” From Z. Fox and R Bechtel, eds, Called and Chosen: Toward a Spirituality of Lay Leaders [Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005], p. 100.
2 Life of Paul, Aidan Hart in collaboration with Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.
3 See Exodus 12:14, Deuteronomy 8:2, Psalm 103:2, Luke 22:20, John 14:26, 1 Corinthians 11:24.
Bridget Deegan-Krause, BCC, serves as a consultant and facilitator in ministry formation for Catholic healthcare leaders. She lives in the Detroit area. Visit her at BDKCollaborative.com.