As a chaplain, I am a servant of two masters: my patients and the government. On the one hand, I want to give patients all the room they need to talk about whatever they want, and not to talk about anything they do not want or need to bring up. On the other, the government (via the hospice agency) requires my best efforts to get the answers to certain questions in my documentation, such as, “What is your religion? Do you belong to a house of worship? Tell me about your career or hobbies.” Having these questions at least in the back of my mind as I meet a new patient or family member nags at me. At a minimum, even if I do not ask them, they might be influencing our interaction with each other. At worst, they may be a hindrance rather than a help to anyone but the government.
When people ask me to succinctly define what chaplains do, I say something along the lines of, “We provide a sacred and safe space for clients of any faith background, free of our own agendas, to express their emotions and gain a better understanding of whatever they are facing at the moment.”
You might say despite the fact that these questions force me to have an agenda, the questions are good ones for finding out what the patient needs and for priming the pump for them to begin talking. But I think more often than not, people find such questions, and questions in general, as intrusive, especially upon a first meeting. I remember when I was a chaplain intern I read an article that suggested that chaplains ask no questions at all during the whole encounter. That might be an extreme, but aiming towards that through open-ended comments and reactions is a good corrective.
Then there is the issue of trust. Even the government acknowledges the importance of that at least. They require that I conclude my documentation of my first contact with each new patient, (for every single patient, mind!) with the words, “A trusting relationship is being established,” whether that really happened or not. Building trust takes time even in the speeded-up world of hospice where even a few minutes later can count as “taking your time.”
I am reminded of my talk with Vanessa (pseudonym) over the phone a week ago, when I asked if she wanted me to contact a church on behalf of her loved one. She said, “no, there’s no church.” I felt awkward, and switched to some small talk for a moment. But then several minutes into the conversation, Vanessa brought up that they did belong to a church, and that she would appreciate it if I contacted them. I found that very interesting that at first she was guarded about revealing that information and was uncomfortable entrusting me with it. But after she got a better sense of my intentions, she felt she was in a safe space to share it. Also she was a member of a minority, which I think adds to the negative impact of having to answer questions. Question-askers have power. The ones answering are vulnerable and struggling to protect themselves.
In an ideal world, my initial question during a visit to my patients would always be, “How can I best be of service to you at this moment?” O Government, please document and process my complaint!