My boss and I had a brief, pleasant disagreement about the title of “chaplain.” She (I hope this is a fair summation) worries that certain hospice patients refuse a chaplain’s visit because of the title.
Could introducing someone as a “chaplain” lead to a closed door?
I think my boss is right. And . . . wrong.
Even though she’s correct 98.3% of the time (please tell her I said that), I wonder if the stumbling block is what a chaplain is perceived to represent. Wasn’t Shakespeare correct in “Romeo and Juliet:” What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet? Whether the chaplain is Jewish or Buddhist, a layperson or professional clergy, volunteer or paid, they all carry the fragrance (or stink) of . . .
Since ordination in 1977, I’ve had various titles: deacon, elder, minister, pastor, associate pastor, senior minister, lead minister, new church start pastor, campus minister, hospice chaplain, and currently a bereavement support specialist. When a new hospice staff member or a grieving family member asks about my background, I’ll mention I’m a United Methodist clergy.
Not good? Good? An open door? A closed door?
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What’s the difference between a pastor and a chaplain? Here’s one explanation,
The title of pastor is bestowed on religious leaders in Protestant churches, for example, but a pastor also may be a rabbi, priest or imam. Pastors focus on ministering to those of their own faith or those who wish to convert. Chaplains may be of any faith and typically do not discuss their personal faiths with those to whom they are ministering unless they are asked.
In hospice, a patient must be under the care of a nurse. Other staff, often referred to as the “hospice team”—social workers, home health aides, chaplains, volunteers, and more—provide additional support. While nurses regularly visit, patients (or their health care power of attorneys) can decline contact from the rest of the team. I’ll bet chaplains rank near the top for declines.
Is it the title? I suspect the No chaplain, thank you very much responses are because patients . . .
- Have their own minister.
- As atheists or agnostics, they don’t identify as religious or spiritual.
- May be spiritual, but don’t care for any religious “authority.”
- Have had no experience with any faith or faith tradition, so why start now?
- Only wants visits with a like-minded believer.
- Had negative experiences with religion or a religious leader.
- Don’t want a priest until the end. Chaplains = last breaths. Avoid a chaplain, avoid death?
Can you think of other reasons?
Though biased, I advocate for saying “Yes” to the chaplain. When there are six months or less to live, every possible hospice resource should be used to make those days meaningful. Nurses will help with medications and management of pain. Social Workers provide emotional support and are knowledgeable about key resources (like Medicare or Veteran’s benefits). Home Health Aides can make a huge difference by assisting patients with simple but essential hygiene.
Everyone has physical, emotional, and practical needs. We also have, I deeply believe, relational/spiritual needs. And that’s a key role of the chaplain in hospice. The Association of Professional Chaplains describes it this way,
Chaplaincy care is grounded in initiating, developing and deepening, and bringing to an appropriate close, a mutual and empathic relationship with the patient/client, family, and/or staff. The development of a genuine relationship is at the core of chaplaincy care and underpins, even enables, all the other dimensions of chaplaincy care to occur. [My italics.]
A good hospice chaplain will never bring in her agenda or traditions. A good hospice chaplain will not share about his faith or to persuade you to follow his way. Whether visiting once or often, chaplains seek to enter into a relationship with you and let you take the lead with your needs. As Chaplain Kerry Egan* explained on NPR’s Fresh Air,
A chaplain should never go in and preach to someone; that’s not our role. Our role isn’t to tell you what to believe. Our role is to say, “What is it you believe and how does that help you — or not help you — in this process, this process of dying, this process of letting go of the life you’ve loved (or maybe have not loved) and coming to some peaceful place?”
But is my boss right? Should we rename the position? She’d contend—and I agree—that some have had lousy experiences with chaplains. A hospital’s chaplain created more rather than less guilt. A police chaplain said the worst thing at the wrong time. An awful past experience does influence any future encounters with those bearing the same title.
So, let’s change the chaplain’s title to . . . what?
Spiritual Counselor? Spiritual Care Coordinator? I’ve read that the military jargon for chaplains is “Sky Pilot.” What about Holy Joe? Or Holy Jane? Padre? Madre? God’s guy or gal?
I can be funny. But this is serious. Titles matter.
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“Chaplain” likely emerged in the 4th century from the Latin, cappellani. Christian legend claims that St. Martin, a military leader turned bishop, had once sliced his cloak (cappella) in two pieces with his sword so a poor man would have warm clothing. That half-cloak became a religious relic, taken into battle as a symbol of God’s blessings. When not in use, the relic (and other religious “treasures”) were housed in a chapel. A chaplain was appointed to be in charge of the chapel.
Chaplain and chapel have decidedly Christian and military origins. As the title evolved, a chaplain came to designate an ordained clergy or trained volunteer linked to a particular institution.
Those hazy, venerable origins continue to inform two key parts of the modern chaplain. First, their role was rooted in one person relating directly and personally with another. I hope today’s chaplains symbolically give a “cloak” to those they serve, providing warmth and comfort. Second, every institution—military, hospital, hospice, and more—can be made better when someone is designated to uphold the spiritual side of what it means to be fully human.
What do you think is the best title?
*Kerry Egan wrote “On Living,” a wonderful book on working with patients as a hospice chaplain. Everyone should read it!
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by