By Gordon J. Hilsman
Virtually all certified chaplains can point to at least a few incidents in which a mere handful of words during formative clinical education flung them into a new place of awareness, opening unexpected possibilities in their personal and patient relationships. I cling to several of those momentary sparks of enduring wisdom in my own history.
Once, early in supervisory education, I entered my mentor’s office after a group I had led and he had observed. I mumbled something about being lost halfway through the session, and he quietly replied, “Next time you feel that, try sitting back and letting yourself know what you know.”
He was beckoning forth my intuitive side that had remained mostly hidden behind an analytic style of the chemistry major I had been. He was suggesting I use them together — current observations, concepts about them, emotions I felt about them, and an intuitive grasp of them all as a whole whose origin would never be known. He was prodding the process of my integration.
Pulling together the various components of a lively, growing person in human development doesn’t happen by itself. Neither can we do it ourselves. It happens through our responses to challenging events that include other people. Like many chemical reactions, it requires specific conditions to proceed optimally, and it shakes up the status quo of your personality. Those molecules will now never be the same. They’ll be something new.
Some contexts harshly invite furthering our integration, and we can certainly reject the challenge. Romantic engagement and its subsequent intimate loving foray; psychotherapy motivated by genuine pain; major loss conveyed to another through courageous, extensive narrative; clinical supervision and mentoring that is allowed to absorb you; the vividly recognized approach of one’s own dying — all of these are situations that cast us into choosing change that both hurts and promises.
Integration includes meeting a crucial moment with authenticity, saying only what you mean but clearly saying it; allowing what you actually feel to affect you and acknowledging those feelings as real and just fine; believing in your current thinking and contributing it; recognizing the implications of a unique moment and embracing them. All of these combined — thoughts, feelings, words, meanings, attitudes, and choices working together — constitute personal integration. It is what is being sought, or ought to be, during a chaplaincy certification.
When someone pins a badge on you that blares “Chaplain,” it ought to mean that you carry a fairly well-developed identity born of experience and enough personal integration to render you consistently available to virtually any other person on the planet for authentic engagement. While nobody is ever totally integrated — we have incomplete evolution, of course — true professionals know that a significant level of integration, which can only be subjectively assessed, is required for practicing their craft.
Certification interview teams are looking for applicants to show a level of integration that will allow consistent authenticity in professional practice. Lack of it is more observable than its possession. Super-nice compliance; unacknowledged contentiousness; subtle victim stances; inability to exemplify concepts or to conceptualize about events; humorless stridency; confusing verbosity; extensive nervous monologues; inability to see the interviewers as real people — these are all indicators (and only indicators) that adequate integration was not mustered in that moment. They don’t mean the applicant is a lesser human being, or even that she is not functioning as a fine chaplain with many people in need.
We also look for some indicators that demonstrate integration. When interviewers encounter an applicant, a few hints of significant personal integration include:
- Ease of movement between head and heart, what one thinks and what one feels
- Accurate use of concepts — psychological, social work, or theological — in discussing patients and family members
- Apparent awareness of one’s own motivation and attitudes, with minimal defensiveness
- Articulation of one’s own values, with examples of how they motivate actions and the pursuit of life decisions and directions
- Speaking specifically about one’s own painful life events with perspective, insight, and emotional freshness rather than bravado, signs of shame, hints of resentment, or subtle victim tones
- Immediate use of enjoyable situational humor, imagination, and creativity
Interviewers are not looking for worthiness or questioning personal worth. But they need to see a convincing level of integrated performance with relative strangers that parallels effective spiritual care conversations.
And there ought to be no assumption that a given interviewer is more integrated than the applicant.
Gordon Hilsman is a retired ACPE/NACC supervisor currently serving as interim supervisor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a member of the NACC Certification Commission.