Chaplains Are Useless

Years ago, I was a hospice chaplain for a brief time. Years later, I now spend time with chaplains (and nurses and home health aides and others) as I do different work with a different hospice.

Then or now, I hear familiar responses from patients and their families about a chaplain wanting to swing by for a first visit . . .

No way. Not now. Not ever. No thanks.

Many people do say yes to a chaplain’s visit. But many don’t. Why?

Hospice chaplain Claire Nord (L), prays with Ken Sheel, terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, and his family at a park while on a home hospice visit on August 31, 2009 in Denver, Colorado.

Hospice chaplain Claire Nord (L), prays with Ken Sheel, terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, and his family at a park while on a home hospice visit on August 31, 2009 in Denver, Colorado.

Some folks aren’t religious. Maybe they despise organized religion or any faith in any “higher power” has simply never mattered. Please, send the nurse and the pain meds, but not the holier-than-thou gal or guy.

Some folks have a lively, active relationship with their faith community. Who needs a chaplain when an imam, rabbi, priest, pastor or shaman is on speed dial? Please, let me have time with a hospice social worker so she or he can assist me in completing those endless, persnickety forms.

Some folks don’t want a chaplain until they’re at death’s proverbial door. The chaplain is viewed as heaven’s gatekeeper. There’s precedence for that reaction: in 327 AD Constantine, who famously made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, chose to be baptized in the final gasps of his life. The warmongering emperor could claim he was “without sin” for the rest of his days (hours?) after receiving the watery sacrament!

Who needs a chaplain to add guilt or smack you on the head with the good book? Won’t she just promise the streets of heaven are paved in gold or (gulp) threaten that you’re going hell in a hand basket? Doesn’t a chaplain make you regret the times you went golfing instead of churching or he’ll deliver a sermon when all you want to do is take a nap?

Yeah, chaplains get a bad, bad rap.

Compared to the nurse bandaging the wounds, the social worker with the list of skilled nursing facility options, the doctor prescribing medication, the home health aide bathing you, the chaplain seems fairly . . . useless.

But I think “useless” is one of the finer parts of a chaplain’s job description. Hospice chaplains greet a patient with the goal of supporting the patient and/or family’s needs. With empty hands, an open mind and a kind heart . . . the chaplain is there to listen, hold hands, contact your imam or rabbi or pastor if you don’t have the energy to, comfort your overwhelmed spouse or child, play a guitar*, sing a song*, tell a joke, say a prayer with you (but only with your permission), interpret your requests to the nurse, be a cheerleader, find resources to read that you’ve requested, help you plan a funeral (or make sure no one talks to you about planning a funeral). Every activity I’ve mentioned is completely useless compared to the vast medical needs all living or dying patients require . . . and yet a chaplain’s “uselessness” is as essential as breathing.

image.adapt.960.highA chaplain is not there for your last gasp (though they are more than willing to be), but for your day-to-day living and loving and hoping.

If you don’t want a chaplain to visit, your request will be honored. The chaplain will put a “no visit” check on your medical chart and he or she will never bother you.

But I’d urge you—whether you’re spiritual but not religious or think every religion is holy who-hah—to invite a chaplain over for at least one visit. They won’t have a pill or needle in their hand. They won’t bring a form to fill out. They won’t confuse or enlighten you about Medicare benefits.

They will settle in beside you, and your family, and be as caring as possible.

Sometimes, that’s exactly what we need today.


(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.)

*Obviously many people can play an instrument and/or sing. But some (like me for instance) can’t sing a note. I’d never cause more suffering for patient by offering my version of any hymns or Broadway tunes. I am envious of those chaplains that can and do share music with their patients!

Picture of Denver-based chaplain from here. Hands photo from here.

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  2. Within the healthcare world, chaplains are the only people a patient can refuse to see without fear of repercussions.Sometimes the refusal is a result of the patient’s exercising power in a place where they feel powerless!

    • Rabbi Joel Levinson . . . how right you are, and in many ways. I think a patient’s need (and right) to control as much as possible influences many decisions (whether hospice or hospital). Being able to say a “No” to a chaplain’s visit will often be “exercising power.” The “No” may be a small thing, but important.

      Thanks for reading! Take care.

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