Monday, December 01, 2014

What is Chaplaincy Anyway?

One of the things that I have been wrestling with lately is the question, "What is chaplaincy anyway?" As a discipline, it is not terribly well-known or understood. When my patient's ask me what I do, I usually say something along the lines of, "Chaplains provide spiritual and emotional support while you are in the hospital."

My work involves discussions of trauma, acute illness and injury, coping with loss of function, loss of life, and so on.  It involves end of life care and it involves discussions about transitioning to comfort care and about who will make decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself. They are non-biased, non-partisan, supportive conversations that involve attending to the specific needs of the patient.

This doesn't seem particularly different than what might be offered by social workers or particularly compassionate nurses.

But the other dimension that makes chaplaincy unique is the understanding that patients have spiritual needs and part of whole-person care is attending to those spiritual dimensions. My CPE supervisor has been challenging me with this question during the last couple months, "If your work is only about attending to the spiritual and emotional needs of the patient, why can't a particularly compassionate atheist do the same work?"

I am not sure that I have an answer, but this is the one that I am trying on lately:  Chaplains must be people of faith themselves, it doesn't matter what sort of faith, as a Jewish chaplain can provide care to a Buddhist patient, or a Christian chaplain can provide care to a Muslim patient, but it is important that in order to do their work with integrity, they must believe that there is a higher power at work in the world and in our lives. 

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