Off the record, a colleague of mine with decades of hospice experience predicted to me that the government would eventually get rid of the requirement that hospices hire chaplains. This particularly caught me off guard because I had just procured such a position with Center for Hope Hospice in Elizabeth, NJ. He elaborated that “the government wants to save money. They say America is becoming more secularized anyway, and so chaplains aren’t needed all that much.”
Not that my shiny new job offer was about to vanish and “go gentle into that good night,” but I was nettled by the government’s alleged viewpoint. We are the lonely profession, wanting to weep with frustration that “nobody understands us!” Picture yourself as a patient. When a health professional comes to you, it is usually centered around some task to perform, some agenda on their part. To give you meds. To ask you about family dynamics. To find out your food preferences. When a chaplain appears, if they are doing their job well, they are doing no particular job. As agendaless as possible, they wait to see whatever it is you care to bring to the fore, anything from “I don’t want to see a chaplain” to “This is what my life has been about” to “Why am I still here?” to “I’m ready to let go but my daughter isn’t” to simply sharing some spiritually-charged quiet as rain pelts the bedroom window and a heater clangs out its protest.
The government, with plenty of agendas to go around, shies away from moments that elude definition….and people that elude definition, well, you know, such as chaplains.
Meanwhile chaplain organizations exhort chaplains to perform research that proves that having us as part of the healthcare team makes for better health care “outcomes.” This is a fear reaction, that yes, chaplains might very well be dispensed with. We better prove that our encounters have a quantifiable effect. Too bad that society cannot take it on faith that some ineffable good arises out of an “I-Thou” relationship between the patient and the chaplain.
And secularization? That is beside the point. It is a rare offer when someone is willing to cede some of their comfortable space to you and dwell in your land of suffering no matter how brief the sojourn.