Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally asked friends and acquaintances to describe a typical chaplain. If people have any notions at all, they reference Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H—a Christian, middle-aged, celibate dude with a kindly twinkle in his blue eyes. I suspect that even in the era of the Korean War, that stereotype bore little resemblance to reality, and there can be no doubt that the Father Mulcahys of the world don’t make up the majority of the ranks of today’s chaplaincy. But the myth of the typical chaplain endures.
Being a chaplain isn’t a typical job, though. While there are federal non-discrimination laws that would bar a corporation from hiring or firing someone based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation, religious denominations are still free to ordain only those whom they deem worthy to provide pastoral care. So, depending on a person’s religious background, they may never have seen a faith professional who doesn’t conform to the mold that their denomination lays out. When these folks meet a chaplain, they may come to that interaction with a very narrowly proscribed vision of the right “man” for the job.
So what do you do when you’re not one of the Father Mulcahys of the world? At times, it’s hard to hide the fact that you don’t meet someone’s expectation of what a chaplain should be. When a female chaplain walks into a hospital room, it’s pretty obvious that she’s not, for example, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, or, say, the Pope. But what about those attributes that we can hold inside ourselves—our deeply held spiritual or political beliefs or our sexual orientations?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the dilemmas that humanist/agnostic/non-conformist and LGBTQ chaplains confront. At what point should they “out” the part of themselves that may not jive with someone’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Here’s what got me thinking. I write murder mysteries about a fictional hospital chaplain in small-town North Carolina. Mostly, the books’ reception has been positive. But a reader recently posted this flaming one-star review to Amazon.com:
This review is from: A Murder in Mount Moriah (Reverend Lindsay Harding Mystery, Book No. 1) (Kindle Edition)
The cover says “A REVEREND Lindsay Harding Mystery.” Now I have no problems with women who are called into the ministry…and…I fully recognize that ministers are fallen human beings with good and bad moments, too. But a woman of the cloth who…enthusiastically supports the gay lifestyle of her boss, who is also an ordained minister…? No. Just no. False advertising indeed.
This review was titled “False advertising!,” and I suspect this reader felt tricked because no mention is made of a gay character’s sexuality until you meet his partner (well into the book).
The experience made me wonder: am I under an obligation to warn readers about the liberal/progressive content of my books, even though there is no sex whatsoever and only one brief (heterosexual) kiss? And if I am, how would I do it, short of putting a Tipper Gore-style cautionary label on my covers like “Contains a chaplain who wrestles with the nature and existence of God,” or perhaps titling the next volume, “The Liberal Murder Mystery with the Gay Chaplain in It”? And in real life, should chaplains let people see their “content,” or should they simply remain closed books?
Theoretically, this wouldn’t come up as an issue very often. Pastoral care doesn’t provide a stage for chaplains to shimmy across, displaying their personal theologies and ideologies like Vegas showgirls. And there’s a reason that chaplains don’t carry ramrods; chaplaincy isn’t an evangelical mission. However, in order to build rapport, especially in longer-term pastoral relationships, it is sometimes natural and even necessary to engage in personal conversations. Some of those in spiritual care need that sort of quid pro quo sharing in order to establish trust. The Reverend Laura Arnold, a former hospital chaplain who now serves as a United Church of Christ minister in Iowa, vividly described this dilemma in her 2012 article “Life as a Queer Chaplain” on Kim Knight’s wonderful Patheos blog. Rev. Arnold talks about that knife-edge moment that many queer chaplains experience when deciding whether to play the pronoun game when asked about their romantic relationships. Is it worth the risk of potentially rupturing a relationship with a patient? Is it worth the sometimes soul-diminishing pain of ignoring a patient’s homophobic rant or disparaging comments about non-believers, when these things go right to the heart of one’s identity?
I’m not sure there is a right answer, and in some ways all of us deal with versions of what I call The Thanksgiving Dilemma. That is, do you call Great Aunt Pearlene out for making crude, racist comments about your sister’s new Filipino boyfriend, or do you just bite your tongue, keep the peace, and pass the gravy? Rev. Laura was able to reconcile her own position by embodying, “a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven.” She said she feels privileged to be able to convey God’s love by fully inhabiting her identity.
For myself, all I can do is keep writing about my little by little my bunch of diverse, quirky, and fully human chaplains, hoping that they can crack open a tiny space in the hearts of readers. And that in that space, acceptance can take root and kindness can come into full flower.
Do you have a solution to the Thanksgiving Dilemma? Share it in the comments section!
Excerpt of the Patheos blog used with permission. Read the full text of Reverend Laura Arnold’s article on “Life as a Queer Chaplain.”
Originally published in PlainViews September 3, 2014, Volume 11 No. 16. Reprinted with permission.