By Christina M. Mayer
Before discovering and pursuing chaplaincy, I was primarily a technical writer. At my first job interview, Y2K was looming, and companies were panicking, thinking that all the computers would crash and no one would have documentation. The interviewer asked just one question: “Can you write a sentence?” I started the following Monday.
The key to success in technical writing is interviewing, asking questions, listening, and establishing rapport with subject matter experts. I also had to assess existing documentation and needs, think quickly, be flexible, solve issues with difficult staff, and write out instructions and information in a concise, helpful manner. And all of these qualities have served me well in chaplaincy.
Establishing a rapport quickly
Time was of the essence prior to Y2K, so we had to work quickly with a variety of staff members. We made teams feel calm and relaxed, while keeping the atmosphere professional and projects on track. The same happens as chaplains. Imagine you are in the Emergency Department, and the family of a deceased patient will be arriving in minutes. It’s wise to gather the interdisciplinary team — physicians, nurses, security — explain the situation, anticipate questions and comments from the family to share with the team, and field these questions professionally and compassionately. We quickly establish a rapport with the interdisciplinary team and work to keep the family calm and cared for.
Part of being a technical writer involves asking questions. Similarly, chaplaincy is about curiosity. We care for souls. When we see a patient with clenched fists, we notice and wonder what the fists mean. When we see tears, we notice and might say, “I see your tears. What do your tears mean?” Another wonderful question I learned from a fellow chaplain, which can be used in many situations, is “What are you learning?” The patient gets to decide what this means— are they learning about self, a health condition, accepting difficult family dynamics, how to better handle conflict?
Assessing the situation
Technical writers take stock of the situation. What documentation do we have now? What information do we need? Which experts can help us close the gap? Chaplains do something similar. What is happening with this patient? Is there anything that the patient needs that we can help with? Could we involve other professionals like the social worker, psychiatry, nurses, or physicians?
Being flexible and compassionate
One expert I needed to interview kept declining my invitations. Finally, I called. I learned that he did not work during typical afternoon business hours. When I said, “Tell me more,” he explained that his wife had recently died, and he had restructured his days to be with his young son. That allowed me to serve him better —which led to getting the information I needed. In the same way, as chaplains, we are flexible and compassionate with our patients. Are they still groggy from surgery? Are they more in need of the restroom at this time, or food, or visiting with a loved one?
Once, I helped document the software development life cycle from concept to implementation. We worked with project managers, developers, testers, quality assurance, hardware professionals, and others — in all, nine different teams. The teams might be stressed and under tight deadlines. They might not even like each other. But our documentation helped create useful products in a timely manner. The same skills help in chaplaincy. We build rapport with the interdisciplinary team, gather them together before we meet with a family or break sad news, anticipate possible questions, come up with answers, and create a unified force. Additionally, when charting, we are able to assess, write notes, stay organized, and educate other team members, which in turn helps patients.
I sometimes refer to chaplaincy as “pastoral improv.” I took courses at The Second City in Chicago, and you never know what one of your fellow team members will say or do. You never know the situation that the audience will hand you. To create a cohesive, supportive, and thoughtful team, you are taught to build on others’ ideas and say, “Yes, and …” Similarly in chaplaincy, you never know what a patient or family member or staffer will say or do. You must anticipate any issues or situations, but also remain flexible and in the moment. You must be ready, silently asking the Spirit for help, asking for wisdom and tact and compassion prior to speaking—and knowing when to stay silent.
I invite you to think of your past careers, your past experiences in life. What do you bring to the table? How is your past experience, your former career, helping you move forward in chaplaincy?
Christina M. Mayer, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago and at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, IL.