Self-proclaimed church nerd Laura Arnold served as a hospital chaplain and as the Associate Minister for Theological Education for the Southeast UCC Conference in Atlanta, GA. She currently serves as pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ in Decorah, Iowa and as the Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal. She is active in her local community, seeking to demonstrate God’s love in the world. In Part One of the Minty Fresh Mysteries interview, Rev. Arnold shares some of the wit and wisdom that served her well during her time as a healthcare chaplain.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Burnout seems to be serious occupational hazard for chaplains. Was that a factor at all in your decision to transition from healthcare chaplaincy to parish ministry?
Laura Arnold (LA): Though I have always been drawn to the local parish (and get church nerd excited about all aspects of church life—even meetings), chaplaincy was a seemingly perfect balance between the adrenaline junkie in me and my love of pastoral presence and theological reflection.
But there was a turning point. I wouldn’t call it burnout as much as warping of worldview after being a part of the aftermath of so many devastating injuries and violence. I began to presume that pregnancies were inherently dangerous and healthy infants were rare, that violence was a normal experience, that everyone I loved was going to wreck their car and suffer a brain injury, etc. In truth the warping of my worldview happened over a long period of time, so it wasn’t until the morning I started to strap a bike helmet to my head before getting in the car that I started seriously considering what the work of chaplaincy was doing to my spirit. I was becoming someone I didn’t want to be and knew it was time to transition to another form of ministry. That said, I wouldn’t trade my years in chaplaincy for anything. It was a tremendous and overall amazing place to serve.
MFM: You’ve shared with me that you had some pretty, ahem, colorful encounters with patients and their families, like the time a patient’s family member put his hand on your rear end during a prayer circle. (I’m totally going to use that in a future Lindsay Harding book, by the way.) What’s another example of a time when a patient’s family or friends were really undermining your ability to provide spiritual care?
LA: A family asked for an anointing and blessing upon a dying family member. We scheduled a time for the next day when the family could all be present. I wrote a beautiful liturgy and was honored to preside given that I had formed a long standing pastoral relationship with the patient as he was dying. When I got to the room, oil and liturgy in hand, a brother announced that they had decided to check out the phonebook and call in a “real pastor.” Ignoring their brother’s wishes, the family decided that I as a woman did not have proper authority to provide spiritual care.
As difficult as family and friends of patients sometimes were, staff members also managed to doubt the validity of our role. It was 3:04 a.m. when I was called by a charge nurse for an “urgent consultation.” I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and fixed my hair before heading up to the floor. The nurse only pointed to the patient’s room and announced that he was incredibly upset and “needed some Jesus.” What the patient actually said he needed was to have the chickens chased out of his room because their clucking was keeping him awake. Given that his experience of his hallucination was real, I proceeded to run around the room, arms swinging wide open, “gathering the chickens,” then loudly announcing that I was taking them all to the elevator to send them downstairs and outside. The report was that he was asleep within 15 minutes of the chickens’ being driven out. While I’m thankful that he finally slept, I wonder what in the world prompted the nurse to call me. I continue to wonder if it was misconception of what chaplains do or if it was a manipulative use of power.