An Understanding of the Chaplaincy

An Understanding of the Chaplaincy within Visiting Chaplains


   I believe Christian Ministry must have a theological underpinning if it is to be true to the gospel; it should be informed by ones ideas and understanding of the triune God. However that theology must be an applied theology, a practical theology, one that connects with my ministry as a hospital chaplain. 

   My theological starting point is with a ‘received tradition’ ie the holy scriptures, the written word of God as recorded in the Bible.  But this tradition I must contextualise within both the hospital setting and contemporary culture, and continually re-interpret by reflecting on my own stories/experiences of ministry as a hospital chaplain. And so my understanding of my hospital chaplaincy is not static; it is on –going learning experience as I meet new situations and people to work with.   


   As a Christian hospital chaplain my ministry is grounded in some basic theological understanding which I believe are particularly relevant to my ministry. My role is to offer trained, timely and appropriate pastoral and spiritual care to patients and their relatives, and to staff in a public hospital. It is above all else, a relational ministry. Therefore, my theological starting point from which I offer chaplaincy is the manner in which God created and related to humankind as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament.

We are Created in God’s Image and Likeness.   

 Genesis 1: 27 :So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them’. God blessed them É..

    Genesis 1:31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.”     

   Scripture affirms the ultimate value of humankind in the sight of God.

I take this affirmation into my ministry with others. I accord to all people respect and reverence, for each is a gift of their Creator God.

I frequently tell people in praying with them that they are known by God, loved by God, special to God, accepted by God. God wants the very best for them, whatever that may be.

I will not discriminate on the grounds of whether a person has or has not a religious faith; I will offer chaplaincy to all people, as all are ‘sacred’ beings, all members of Gods family, all with the potential to be the people God has created them to be.  They are not spiritually empty vessels waiting to be filled; each person is someone in and from whom I can see and learn something about God or the ‘holy.’ As God’s people I will be sensitive and courteous in my initial interactions with them.  I will introduce myself by name and staff position to people I visit, and check to see if the patient would wish me to sit and have conversation. That gives the patient an ‘out.’  I only stay with the patient’s permission; I can never assume that permission. Patients have the right to say ‘no’ to a chaplain and I accept that with good grace.

   I also believe that God created each person as a unique individual, with their own personality, gifts and talents, strengths and weaknesses, their own culture, spirituality or world view that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. I will respect such individuality, and see each encounter as special, as different, as well as being of worth.  I will see the patient as a person not as an illness or object, and acknowledge that each has their own story to tell.  I will provide space for their story telling by attentive listening, rather than clutter that space with my own stories.  I will respect different viewpoints, lifestyles, without prejudice; I will not impose my value system on others.   I will arrange for people of other faiths and cultures to receive ministry from their own people if they so wish.  I will be alert and respond to the special issues and needs which can surface because of age, gender, ethnicity, illness and disability, sexual orientation, life experience. Again I will offer ministry to all people. 

The Word Became Flesh  

My second theological starting point is the incarnation. God having created the world and its people, chose to enter into the fullness of the human experience with its pain and suffering as well as its joys and celebrations.  This was shown most sublimely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was “Emmanuel’ God with us, the Word that became flesh, and full of grace and truth, dwelt among us to show us the path to life in all its fullness. 

  Scripture attests that for Jesus healing the sick and the broken-hearted was a vital part of his ministry of salvation for all Gods people. 

Luke records at the beginning of Jesus ministry his reading in the synagogue from Isaiah:‘ the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.’.

  And in Matthew 25: 31-46 Jesus confirms that people will be judged by their response to the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, strangers, prisoners. And he adds just as you did it to one of the least of these you did it for me.

  Jesus ministry and call to discipleship is the inspiration, the motivation for my chaplaincy. Jesus is also my exemplar, my role model in life and ministry. I understand hospital chaplaincy as incarnational ministry, making God’s costly, compassionate, all- inclusive unconditional love in Jesus available for the people I engage with each day in Christs’ name.  As Christ often did with those who were ill or rejected, I attempt to enter with authenticity, empathy and compassion into the pain of each person, to share that pain with them as much as that is possible, and to communicate that back. Like Christ ultimately did on the cross, I am willing to make myself vulnerable, fragile, uncomfortable, to bear the burden of the sufferer, so that I may come to some understanding of where the patient is at, their real needs, issues, whether they be physical, social, emotional psychological or spiritual.  I believe I am then better equipped to make a spiritual assessment of the patient, and then use my training, my pastoral skills and experience in an effort to bring Gods wholeness into the broken world of the patient, relative or staff member, I do this by trying to help the patient uncover their own God given wisdom and coping resources, in an effort to empower and affirm the self worth of the patient, so they contribute to their own healing process. It is not my job to try and ‘fix/solve’ things for them; it is to assist patients to ‘unpack’ their own issues, and to deal with them.

  The Walk to Emmaus: A Model for Hospital Chaplaincy

One model for offering pastoral and spiritual care which informs my chaplaincy practice is the encounter Jesus had with two of his followers on the Walk toEmmaus, a post crucifixion and resurrection story recorded in Lukes Gospel (Lk 24: 13-35).

The feelings of Cleopas and his companion are those which I as a hospital chaplain encounter time and again.: grief from the death of a loved one, or ones own impending death ; disillusionment with life, the struggle to find meaning, doubting faith and confusion, fear. Many patients and their families enter such ‘dark nights of the soul’; they are spiritually distressed and need sensitive chaplaincy to find the way ahead. How Jesus responds to the Emmaus walkers is my guide for how I attempt to offer chaplaincy to people facing the pain of a crisis. It is a model of companionship, of journeying with people, and in the process building relationship and re-establishing community.     

  What is initially striking is Jesus doesn’t inflict himself on his two friends as he walks with them; rather he acts as though a stranger, as hospital chaplains often are when they first encounter a patient. Jesus is present, silent, but listening intently, with empathy to the painful story of the two. Listening is probably the most important skill of the hospital chaplain, listening not only to the words but also to ‘the music behind the words’ the unspoken feelings and body language. Listening grants the patient the permission, the freedom, the space to get things off their chest, to tell it like it is if they so wish, to explore thoughts and feelings. It facilitates one of the core elements of pastoral care ie healing defined by Howard Clinebell in “Basic Type of Pastoral Care and Counselling, “ as the overcoming of some impairment by restoring the person to wholeness.  

   As he listens, Jesus builds trust and confidence to the point where he can ask open questions to seek clarification and to allow the two to explore further their story (“What are you talking about, What things? ‘). Here Jesus is seeking ‘concreteness’ from his followers, which I as a chaplain need to do if I am to assist patients confront the issues before them.  Again Jesus allows them to tell all before he intervenes. He is an empathetic compassionate listener, entering into the depths of their darkness and sharing the pain with them in the role of the suffering servant of Isaiah or that of the wounded healer. He stays with them in the pain, not denying or avoiding it, for he needs to get the full picture even though he obviously does not share their point of view.

 It is an act of love as interpretted by Richard Gula :

   Love as compassion enters the world of others without intruding on their  privacy or manipulating their vulnerability. Love is moved by what another is experiencing, grasps the meaning of that experience, and stays with the other in whatever way is needed.

 Luke then records Jesus admonishing the two for their mis-understanding of the events which have led to their distress, and for their disbelief of the scriptures. Such a forthright challenge (‘How foolish, how slow’) is not how a sensitive hospital chaplain would respond to a patient’s belief system or interpretation of life in the midst of their distress.

However when this interpretation is a distortion of reality, and is obviously  unhealthy, destructive, and inhibiting the healing process, I as a chaplain would attempt to offer guidance and education, not for, but with the patient. This is another core element of pastoral care. I would seek to offer the patient, by negotiation, an alternative explanation to their ‘take’ on events, one that may assist the patient to find meaning in their distress, to find comfort, reassurance hope and healing. I would need to check out with the patient that this in fact was helpful; if not we would have to explore further. If there was no satisfactory resolution for the patient, I would refer the patient to his/her nurse for possible intervention by other health professionals, with the patients permission.

  The conclusion to the walk to Emmaus is also a significant pointer for my hospital chaplaincy.  It is now dark and the two wish Jesus to accept their hospitality and stay the night with them. He agrees to hold back from going further on as he sees an opportunity for further ministry, the sacrament of Holy Communion. And it is in this celebration that Jesus’ identity is revealed to the two; he becomes a living presence and the relationship between Jesus and his two followers is reconciled or restored. They return to their family and friends rejoicing in their discovery, their hopes restored, their faith renewed. As a hospital chaplain I too have the opportunity to offer the blessed sacrament of the bread and wine to patients in chapel and at bedside. It is yet another way to present the living Christ to patients in a manner which can unite or even reconnect them with the God of their faith, to rediscover their spiritual resources which they may have ignored or dismissed due to their illness or hospitalisation.  Such a transformational act can also be sustaining and nurturing of a patients faith, (‘bread and drink for the journey’) allowing the patient to continue the process of growth towards a deeper and more lasting healing and wholeness.  As a chaplain I recognise the place of faith in healing; Jesus spelled out this link on many occasions (“go in peace; your faith has made you well”). I see it as an important task to assist in helping patients discover or re discover their relationship with God or affirming a strong faith when it presents itself.                 

   Conclusion:  My hospital chaplaincy would be purely of a secular and social nature if it were not underpinned by my theology of God and God’s interactions with the world and its people. God’s original blessing of humanity, together with the life death and resurrection of Jesus continue to be the source of my inspiration, and my on- going chaplaincy reflection as I apply these theological markers to the hospital context in the Aotearoa of the 21st century.       

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