By Jennifer Paquette
In her review of Professor Wendy Cadge’s most recent book, Spiritual Care: The Everyday Work of Chaplains, Anne Windholz noted, “While understanding the multivalent power of presence, Cadge doubts that it will promote institutional investment in chaplaincy. She instead urges spiritual caregivers to shake off their invisibility …”
Those are hard words to read, especially when chaplains believe in the centrality of spiritual care in the life of the institution. Yet, in all too many cases, it is true.
Similarly, a CEO once remarked on the invisibility of chaplains, “You’re too self-isolating.” Our offices are often close to the chapel, a long walk from the hospital core. While the chaplains are wherever patients are, they may not be evident in the daily flow of hospital traffic. But at the same time, hospital executives, isolated on “executive row,” are not typically visible in the daily flow. Their advantage is that their names and pictures are associated with public references to the institution.
Moreover, we do not share a common language. Executives speak in the language of the needs of the business. Chaplains speak in the language of the needs of the soul.
How can chaplains claim a more prominent role for themselves in the life of the institution? It is unlikely that the hospital leadership will take up theology to help things along. It is easier and much more obvious for us to take up hospital leadership language.
To begin, become conversant with the published mission, vision, and values statements of the institution. These reveal the organization’s beliefs and intentions about itself. Every new initiative is vetted through these lenses. The mission statement conveys what the organization professes to be today. The vision statement, by contrast, is intended to convey the future, what the organization is becoming. In a well-integrated organization, the key words and phrases from these statements will be found – and lived out – at the departmental level, including Spiritual Care.
A typical mission statement from a faith-based hospital: “To provide high-quality health care that delivers the best value to the people we serve in a spiritual environment of caring in association with teaching and research.” This statement embeds an appreciation for chaplains by calling out “a spiritual environment.” But it also specifies “teaching and research” as essential. As an indicator of its relevance, Spiritual Care must ask itself how it can contribute in those areas.
Teaching may be as simple as training Spiritual Care volunteers for the hospital, perhaps including education for home visits for volunteers from local churches. Or Spiritual Care may offer monthly brown-bag lunches for clinical staff on the signs of spiritual distress.
And research? Consider your own observations among staff or patients. For example, track the monthly data of patient satisfaction gathered for the hospital. What can be discovered in the anomalies? Contributing research need not be complex to be useful. Find out who sits on the Institutional Review Board for your hospital and approach them with questions or ideas.
Last, but central to Spiritual Care relevance, are relationships with hospital leadership. Like the patients or staff that chaplains serve, the institutional leadership carries burdens, both professional and personal, about which we may know little. The ability of the chaplain to create sacred environments of trust, where another can feel comfortably vulnerable, is core to our training and our ability to deeply know another human being.
A few examples on beginning a leadership relationship:
- Invite the CEO to come to your department for morning coffee. (Meet at her office to walk with her to yours at the appointed time.) The chaplains gathered should be no more than a few. This is not a time to lecture her about what chaplains do. Rather, it is a time to begin building a relationship, listening. Relaxed, open, conversational, as you would do with a patient. Create a friendly seating arrangement, with no table separating you. This is not an interview. She should be comfortable in offering critique, good and bad, if she chooses to do so.
- Do the same for other leadership, one at a time. As you come to know one another and over time, use their institutional knowledge to explore how you can become more relevant in that setting. (Don’t overlook the Security Department.)
- Who puts out departmental newsletters in your institution? Nursing? Environmental Services? Being included in the “Messages from the Leadership” are the best. Offer to provide a column every month specific to their need. Monthly newsletters are always looking for column material.
Once the relationships have begun, continue the gatherings periodically. Through the leadership, you will learn the primary influencers across the institution. They teach other departments what success looks like in this setting. In time, the leadership will look to Spiritual Care as essential in achieving the institutional mission and vision and representing, implicitly, the values of the organization.
Jennifer Paquette, DMin, BCC, is “retired in Seattle.”