By Anne Windholz
People who enter chaplaincy are a committed and compassionate lot. Learning how to respectfully embrace people of different backgrounds is one of the primary lessons of CPE. This is not a call to forget our own identity or core beliefs, but rather to hold them gently, while outwardly, and whole-heartedly, serving the needs of the person before us. We are not called to evangelize, to convert, or even to convince. Our call is to ask questions. To try and understand. To serve all persons willingly and to listen to their stories with a non-judgmental love.
But as ministers, we are also called to prophetic engagement with society. To promote human dignity. To further racial, sexual, and economic justice. And that is where the prophetic necessarily bleeds into the personal and political. The United States’ tumultuous past year has shown that fault lines of opinion and belief are numerous. When a social earthquake comes (such as the pandemic, public demonstrations, and presidential election), edifices we considered secure may fall. People we were certain shared our beliefs may show up on the other side of the divide. We discover just how much our places of work, like our families, are made up of folks with diverse and fiercely held political positions. The professionalism which keeps us from proselytizing among the people we serve does not always hold with colleagues behind department doors.
In other words, chaplains are political animals too. We tend to have strong opinions about power, right rule, the role of government, and the best way forward in our current tumult. Our egos easily get invested in the competition for power; our politics mutate into idolatry. We become impatient, irritated, or enraged with “the other side.” We share the human predilection to think that our personal position is “right,” to condemn the side we think is “wrong,” and to hold in contempt those who disagree. Including any “misguided” colleague.
During my decade in chaplaincy, I have served in community hospitals as well as faith-based institutions, large teaching hospitals as well as smaller local facilities. I have witnessed the clashing of political views among colleagues at all these sites. Usually I’ve just been an observer, but not always. I confess that, in the office, I have joined other chaplains in publicly mourning (or celebrating) election results and political appointments in a way that surely made any chaplain or CPE student of an alternate persuasion feel silenced. I have taken part in polarized discussions of race that, on my side, became more self-righteous than illuminating. I have listened, with silent but rigorously judgmental consternation, to a Latino priest express disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement because “all lives matter” and “they are not special.”
I have not always been the servant leader, the child of God, that Jesus calls me to be. Both in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. Experience teaches me this: It is not always necessary or advisable to share our political beliefs with co-workers. But neither is it right to avoid exploring important ethical questions that have implications for the kind of care we provide and how we represent our faith.
Even the best pastoral caregivers among us cannot always control feelings about politics, especially when those beliefs are tied to our spiritual understanding of good and evil. We can find it hard to respect politicians (and their supporters) whose actions and ideologies we find repugnant. In 1953, Dorothy Day realized her contempt for Joseph McCarthy in the midst of journal jottings about plans for an upcoming peace conference. “I’m afraid I have not kept this spirit of respect towards Senator McCarthy,” she wrote. “There is no room for contempt of others in the Christian life. I speak and write so much better than I perform. But we can never lower the ideal because we fail to live up to it.”
Ministry planning comes right up against politics. Day’s personal injunction to “see Christ and only Christ” in others while “follow[ing] one’s conscience” leads her seven sentences later to McCarthy. Significantly, she does not express guilt for opposing the Wisconsin senator’s anti-communist persecution. Her compunction comes from recognizing her public contempt for him as a person.
Almost all chaplains are people of good will and competent professionals. We make a positive difference in people’s lives on a daily basis. But we are also different from each other, and if we sometimes converge at the same endpoint – love of neighbor and service to those in need of compassion – we often get there by different means. We sometimes get it wrong. We slip into political idolatry. We behave harshly, projecting our own negative emotions. We ignore coworkers with whom we disagree. We are human. And our behavior can destroy a department.
For this reason I advocate chaplains coming together to discuss where, within their shared space, they wish to create a “politics-free” ground. The value of such a place grew out my experience at one morning’s devotions when heated political debate erupted. Once the embers cooled, our department had to intentionally (re)establish that the table around which we gather each morning – to reflect, pray, and prepare for daily ministry – must remain a safe and sacred place where members can rely upon mutual respect and support. No political litmus tests. As Christian chaplains, we look to Christ. Jesus welcomed everybody.
That said – Jesus also challenged everybody! How do we chaplains determine when we ARE called to challenge colleagues about personal/political beliefs? And how do we do so appropriately? Sometimes in our workplace we must honestly discuss how we can stand together in spite of divergent politics, and under what circumstances we may be called to reconsider our views. If we cannot, then we risk becoming infected with the silent virus of disdain and contempt – replete with passive aggression, triangulation, and demonization of the other. We preserve the sacredness of some spaces by practicing forbearance; we bring the sacred to other spaces by promoting open and free discourse. To build bridges across a dangerous political breach, the solution is not either safe silence or considered confrontation, but both.
Putting that into practice demands the wisdom of a serpent and the gentleness of a dove. When disruptive political arguments arise, Human Resources is a good place to turn for guidance. Ask about the official, institutional policy of your ministry site regarding political discourse. Review with colleagues the boundaries of acceptable speech within the workplace. If your institution does not already have an education module treating the subject, invite an HR representative to give an in-person presentation—and allow for questions.
Some spiritual care departments may feel further called to hold a forum for exploring the parameters of civil discourse. Opening with a shared reading (rather than rehashing an inciting incident) can provide a safe foundation on which to build discussion. Hospice chaplain Samuel Blair’s blog post, “The Political Chaplain,” offers a good starting place for beginning discussion. Another excellent resource is Susan Milligan’s article, “How Should HR Handle Political Discussions at Work?” published by the Society of Human Resource Management in 2020. Milligan identifies the intimidation and distrust that overt political endorsement can cause; explores how to set boundaries; and examines the tension between free speech and appropriate workplace interaction. Such a forum may, if successful, be offered to other departments and interdisciplinary groups.
Another tool for building understanding is the anonymous survey. Such surveys work best with a large participant pool that can safeguard individual privacy while also disclosing the spectrum of beliefs. A truly valuable survey can reveal the beliefs and values undergirding political affiliation and thereby opening the way for fruitful community exploration. Some key questions:
- How well do coworkers understand the boundaries of civil discourse?
- Where are the greatest points of tension – and how might institutional culture exacerbate them?
- How safe do employees feel about expressing their values?
- What values are shared by otherwise divergent groups?
- How do those shared values contribute to, or reflect, the departmental/institutional mission?
- What constructive possibilities for dialogue might be developed? And what might a healing discourse, founded on shared values and beliefs, look like?
Chaplains are continually called to be ambassadors of love and hope in situations of anxiety, distress, loss, and often injustice. We fail in our charge to others if we do not also look to healing ourselves, daring to acknowledge and support each other in spite of political difference; working together for the greater good of a world weary from pain, anger, and isolation. When Jesus’ cranky and competitive disciples argue among themselves about who is greatest, Jesus tells them that to enter the kingdom of heaven they must become like children (Matt. 18). Dorothy Day clues into this wisdom when she challenges herself and her coworkers to pursue justice work with the “spirit of a child,” as well as adult “judgment,” for only then will they be able to see Christ in those with whom they cannot agree.
Day was not one to romanticize childhood, and certainly at its worst politics can promote childish behavior. But this may itself be the point. Like children, we must learn to practice kindness and respect in our interactions with each other. And when we chaplains do hurt each other, we must practice the humility that allows us to embrace, make up, and commit to growing up in Christ – together.
Anne Windholz, BCC, is a board-certified chaplain and freelance writer in west-suburban Chicago.