Juliet: “‘Tis But Thy Name That Is My Enemy”

Family members with a loved one on hospice are usually astounded when I tell them that most families decline my offer to visit or even phone them. I’d say about 20% of new patients and/or families on a “good” day think of me as more of a help than a hindrance.

One of the dilemmas about speaking with people in crisis is that they cannot take in very much new information, so my “elevator pitch” about the value of seeing a chaplain has to be as short as going from one floor to the very next before my time is up. If I am lucky, aside from saying that I am a chaplain, I may add something like, “I’m here to talk about anything you want; I won’t preach at you or anything like that. I’m just here to listen.”

The complicating factor during these cold calls is the word “chaplain” itself. On the face of it, it seems good shorthand for “spiritual support,” “comfort” and the like, but it bears a back-breaking load of negative associations as well. Like an off putting smell, it drives away anyone who has had hurtful experiences with clergy and houses of worship. Some people have had oppressive religious instruction that teaches fear and the need for unquestioning obedience. Some people have heard possibly well-intended but phony sounding bromides from clergy in times of trouble, or were not contacted by clergy at all. Others have faced aggressive efforts to be converted.

Another issue with the word “chaplain” is that for many non-Christian or atheist patients, it somehow has a Christian connotation. In that case, I emphasize my last name which signals “Jewish” to some, but woe to the Buddhist, Moslem, Hindu Jewish chaplains, etc. whose last name does not drop a hint. This is even harder for Christian chaplains, who stand ready to serve all religions as well as those patients with no religion, because professionally trained chaplains are there to address broad spiritual issues, not specific religious ones unless requested to do so.

What to do? The alternatives to the word “chaplain” are even less agreeable. In one of my hospice positions, my title was “spiritual care coordinator,” and my supervisor asked me to introduce myself thus. I rebelled, as most people would not understand what that was, and even if they did, it would come off as cold. I think that phrase suggests bureaucracy and distance, not personalized comfort. Even more galling is “spiritual care provider.”  I have one word for that: “yuck.” If you have any felicitous suggestions for alternatives, I will share them with one and all, especially my fellow chaplains.

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7 thoughts on “Juliet: “‘Tis But Thy Name That Is My Enemy”

  1. Interesting. I never thought of that. How about confidant or advisor? Personally, I like chaplain myself, but I can understand others might not. Since some have things they want to get “off their chest,” perhaps a confidant might be more non-threatening.

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    • It definitely is true that part of our role is to be a confidant, i.e.people can entrust their secrets to us that even their own loved ones don’t know. But every label has its weakness, and the one I spot with this one is the lack of any spiritual reference at all. And it is also true that we can be advisors, but that is relatively rare. As paradoxical as that may seem, chaplains, that is, good ones, do not give advice. We listen, and let people sort out things for themselves simply from their relating their stories to us in a baggage-free space.

      I do appreciate the suggestions, though, which helps me and other chaplains reading this to continue defining who we are and what we offer and do not offer.

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  2. barbaramarincel says:

    I understand exactly what you mean regarding people having preconceived notions of what a “chaplain” is. I know some people who don’t know me are totally turned off that I am getting a MA in Theology. My generation (X) and the ones behind us are the ones who say “I’m spiritual but not religious” and assume I’m some kind of fanatic. It’s really frustrating!

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    • Ha! This might be more a matter of jealousy, or discomfort with intellectuals. I remember when I was single, and how mentioning to prospective dates that I was getting a PhD got faces to fall and feet to run in the opposite direction faster than you could say “singles’ groups.”

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      • barbaramarincel says:

        You’ve got a good point! My husband is the first guy I ever dated who actually wanted an intellectual wife. I dated a lot of guys who seemed to think we were in some kind of weird competition.

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  3. Hmmm… I love making up acronyms and titles! This is MY kind of gig! I still love thinking about “BROTHER: Bridging Rapid Onsite Testing to HIV Emergency Response”. Nice ring, huh? Didn’t get funded though! HA! OK. A title. Seriously. I love counselor, because it evokes EVERYTHING: lawyer, guidance counselor in school, Mafia consiglieri, “consoladora” (comforter). As an HIV doc, it’s great to have a name like Consuelo (meaning Comfort). For all the kids for whom the word “doctor” evokes some pretty horrifying visions, the title “Comfort” is just right!! So I submit to you: Spiritual Counselor. Unless you want to go with Servant of the Serene Goddess, or maybe the Serene Goddess herself.

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    • “Serene Goddess”–now we’re talking! But what about all those male chaplains? Seriously, “spiritual counselor” captures a good chunk of what we do, though sometimes we are just present/just listening rather than counseling. I’ll put that out there on Twitter and see what the other chaplains think….or of course they can reply right here.
      “Counsuelo” really is the perfect name for a doctor. Just like “chaplain,” and even more so, “doctor”, we have to deal with how the difference in power implied by these titiles (Perceived? Actual?) intimidates and inhibits patients.

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