Tag: Association of Professional Chaplains

Beam me up, Chaplain.

This piece was originally published in the November 2014 issue of the Association of Professional Chaplains Newsletter. Reprinted here with permission.

“For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain…  It wasn’t until I was beginning to do Star Trek that the subject of religion arose. What brought it up was that people were saying that I would have a chaplain on board the Enterprise. I replied, “No, we don’t.” –Gene Roddenberry

“Roddenberry made it known to the writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and mystical thinking were not to be included, and that in Roddenberry’s vision of Earth’s future, everyone was an atheist and better for it.[39] He stubbornly resisted the effort of network execs to put a Christian chaplain on the crew of the Enterprise. It would be ludicrous, he argued, to pretend that all other religions would have become obliterated by this point, or that such a cosmopolitan people would impose one group’s religion on all the rest of the crew.”[40] Wikipedia entry on Gene Roddenberry

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I was intrigued when I discovered recently that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, hated, and I’m talking blood-boilingly, eye-buggingly HATED, the idea of putting a chaplain on board the Starship Enterprise. Before I go any further, let me issue the disclaimer that I’m not an avid Trekkie. While I am a casual fan of both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, I don’t speak even a word of Klingon and I’ve never seen a single episode of Deep Space Nine. I encourage true Trekkies to boldly go where no Mindy has gone before by engaging in the Trekkie message board discussion about the topic of chaplains, religion, and Star Trek.

Despite my lack of Trekkie street cred, Roddenberry’s stance was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I have a strong suspicion that anyone who’s been a chaplain for more than, say, four minutes has at some point encountered similar antagonism to the mere fact of their existence. I’m guessing this applies in all realms of chaplaincy, but since I know the most about chaplaincy in the hospital setting, I’ll use that arena to illustrate what I mean.

Many hospital chaplains will have run into a doctor who felt that they were “in the way” or even that they were undermining patient care or challenging the doctor’s authority. Or maybe you’ve had an experience in which a patient became enraged at a gentle offer to pray with them. For example, I remember my boss at the Duke University Medical Center coming into my office wide-eyed with shock after having a patient’s family scream at her in the hallway. “You come in here with your soft voice and your little prayers! What good is that? She’s in pain! She’s dying! You’re useless!” (Side note, after the woman died, the family actually sought out my boss to thank her for putting up with them, and for finding snacks and tissues for them).

Sometimes such antagonism is born out of the anger and fear that surrounds a trauma or a death. Other times, though, it comes from a sort of cognitive dissonance. Hospitals are supposed to be shimmering bubbles of modernity — the best that modern medical science has to offer. They’re about stuffing people full of precisely engineered, molecularly-targeted drugs and doing things to them that involve really big, fancy words. Words like stereotactic laser-assisted surgery and autologous mesenchymal stem cell infusions. To some people, suggesting a simple act like offering a prayer to a higher power might be as welcome in such a setting as offering to bring out the leeches and bloodletting tools.

For others, it’s not about the setting; they just can’t get on board with the idea of religion at all. I write novels about a hospital chaplain in a small North Carolina town. In my first book, I included a scene where a patient’s wife tells the chaplain that she doesn’t need the chaplain’s help because she isn’t “superstitious.” BURN! Like most of my best lines and plot elements, that was based on a true event. In that real-life situation, I felt that that word was carefully chosen to be extra insulting. Not just “not religious,” “not a Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc.,” or “not spiritual.” Such people might’ve had a bad experience in the past with someone trying to foist their own beliefs onto others. They may lash out because they feel threatened and might simply not understand that chaplains are not evangelists.

Roddenberry’s anti-chaplain stance also spoke to me as someone who falls on the humanist end of the Unitarian Universalist belief spectrum. I, too, have sometimes wished that we little homo sapiens could move beyond a certain kind of religious expression. It’s hard to learn about yet another zealot overseas beheading an innocent person or a rigid religionist in our own country passing discriminatory laws based on narrow interpretations of their personal faith without wishing that there was “nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too.”

But Roddenberry fundamentally misunderstood the role of a chaplain, and indeed the role of religion in our lives. I agree that in Star Trek’s science-driven, cosmopolitan future world, it would make sense that some aspects of religious turmoil and even perhaps facets of religious belief would naturally fall away. Let’s sincerely hope we’re done beheading each other in the name of religion by then. But Captain Kirk and his shipmates are still humans. They still live and die, become angry and jealous, confront the unknown, and, most importantly, confront the unknowable. As long as there are humans, there will be a need for those who can help them understand what it means to be human. And that’s why chaplains will be needed every bit as much in Star Date 2364 as they are today.

Hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan sends a postcard from the edge

In her creative nonfiction work, Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan shares her patients’ stories–some heart-breaking, some funny, some profound–and refuses to offer easy answers or sound-bite wisdom about what it means to face death. Excerpted below is Chapter One, entitled “You’re Too Nice Looking to Work for Hospice- -Being Made Welcome to My New Career.”  For more samples of Rabbi Kaplan’s writing and information about her book, check out her blog, offbeatcompassion.com.  She hastens to warn readers of my Lindsay Harding mystery series that her book has no detectives, murders, or blind dates with teenage Zoroastrian Civil War reenactors.

Karen B. Kaplan has some stories for you

Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan:

I started looking for hospice work in 2005 as I wrapped up a three-year contract with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavat Sholom in Brooklyn, New York. As my contract was drawing to a close, I interviewed for pulpit as well as hospice positions, being ambivalent about leaving congregational life. The congregation was unaware that I was considering serving at a hospice. As of yet unannounced to a soul, soon after I got the offer from United Hospice of Rockland, one of these fans said, “Rabbi, I don’t care how far away your next post is, I will follow you there.” I told him I was overwhelmed with his faithfulness and touching sentiments, but that he would not want to fulfill his vow as the only way he would be following me would be as a hospice patient! A portrait painter would have had a heyday capturing the motley crew of emotions all over his face.

And that was one of the more positive reactions to my announcement of my career plans. One person made such an expression of disgust you would think I had already ritually defiled myself from contact with the dead as described in the Book of Leviticus. He was afraid I would be contaminating him in no time. Sure enough, he backed away from our remaining opportunities to get together over coffee. Someone else, upon hearing the news, raised his arms as if to protect himself, emitted an “Oh!” looked away, and retreated a step or two. Mentioning my new career to my congregants definitely was a way to throw a curveball into a conversation. (Nowadays, there is a mischievous part of me that sometimes gets a kick out of springing this surprise upon unsuspecting listeners such as fellow Bed and Breakfast guests.) Yet another congregant gave me a knowing look, saying “That is just the kind of job that would suit you.” Maybe I was imagining it, having been stung by the premature end of my tenure, but it felt like the subtext of that remark was “A pulpit rabbi you should not or could not ever be.” So onward I went, with all these votes of confidence, to life at the edge.

False Advertising, Indeed.

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).

Should I include cautionary labels for those who don’t like the idea of a gay chaplain?!

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. 

Paging Chaplain Barbie

I came across this great blog post today, written by a young, attractive female hospital chaplain: Paging Chaplain Barbie. “Chaplain Barbie” relates this experience:

Patient: “You don’t look like a chaplain.”
Me: “What does a chaplain look like?” 
Patient: “An old man with wrinkles and white hair.” 

There is a scene almost exactly like this in A Murder in Mount Moriah! I know this happens to women in a lot of professions (engineering, math, and science are obvious examples), but there is something about a young female religious professional that can be particularly difficult for folks to get their heads around.  Hooray for the real Reverend Lindsay Hardings out there!

Why write books about chaplains?

I came across an inspiring blog post today: Life as a queer chaplain by Laura Arnold. I’m at a particularly thorny stage of writing the next Reverend Lindsay Harding book, and I’ve been a bit discouraged. This post really helped reconnect me with my “mission”–to entertain and engage, while reminding people that we are all children of God*. We all need love. We all seek truth. We all crave meaning and connection. Chaplains, whatever their personal stories, come into our lives at critical moments and do their best to help us walk through to the other side. But chaplains are just like the rest of us–struggling with their own inner turmoil and trying to make their own way in this world.

*Note: Please substitute The Universe or Humanity if the idea of God doesn’t speak to you.

Too much, but not enough

The Simpsons is a great fun-house mirror for American life. One of my favorite scenes of all time shows Bart and the two devoutly Christian Flanders boys playing a video game in which they throw Bibles at heathens in order to convert them to Christianity. Bart’s biblical projectile glances off of one of the heathens-making him a Unitarian. As a Unitarian Universalist myself, I’ve become used to being considered too religious by atheists and not religious enough by many Christians. The Bible must have just nicked me as it flew past!

Through my religious practice, I have become increasingly interested in the middle places between doubt and belief, between being a member of the flock and being the black sheep. The work of a hospital chaplain requires a unique ability to navigate this tricky middle ground. Like the creators of The Simpsons, I think that humor can be a good avenue for deepening our understanding, which is why it’s so important to explore and celebrate the (sometimes unintentional) comedy that is part and parcel of being a religious professional.

Many of the young chaplains I know suffer constantly from a “too much, but not enough” view of their spirituality and professional calling. A few years ago, I went for a girls’ night out with a young, single minister friend of mine. Two men approached us in a bar and started making small talk. Many young, single religious professionals can guess what happened next. How many conversations have you had – on planes, at cocktail parties, in bars – where the flirty banter screeches to an abrupt halt when your potential suitor asks, “So, what do you do?”? For women especially, it seems, answering, “I’m a minister,” or “I’m a chaplain,” can end a romantic moment more quickly than saying, “I own sixteen cats and I let them all sleep in my bed.” Even if one’s date clears that first hurdle, another lies ahead. Most chaplains are, almost by definition, tolerant of others’ beliefs and ecumenical in their own beliefs. In America, religious toleration and acceptance are not frequently aligned with the abiding faith and deep commitment to spiritual practice that are part and parcel of being a religious professional. And so, there can emerge the converse problem that people sometimes assume that because you are a person who has chosen a religious profession, you are a person of their religious persuasion.

One of the most outlandish stories I have ever heard from the trenches of hospital chaplaincy was based around this kind of dynamic. A family who held a particularly inflexible view of Christianity was refusing to cooperate with “heathen” hospital staff. They clung to the Catholic hospital chaplain, who, by virtue of being the lone religious figure present, they took into their confidence. This priest was quickly dragged into a rather questionable religious rite at a patient’s bedside. They spoke in tongues, their bodies shaken by the Holy Spirit; he sang prayers in Latin. Everyone was happier, though the nurses were perhaps rather bemused.

These complexities can be especially challenging for those chaplains who are not heterosexual. Many of the chaplains I have met are gay or lesbian, having come to chaplaincy after being unable to reconcile their sexual orientation with the expectations of their “home” Christian denomination. They wanted a life of religious service free of the harsh judgments of certain faith traditions, and found that they could occupy that middle ground by working as a chaplain. One of the main characters in a novel I published last year is a chaplain who is in a same-sex relationship. I remember one literary agent suggesting that I drop this gay chaplain character so that my book could be more readily marketed in Christian bookstores. I will admit that I considered it. (I’ve got bills to pay, after all!) But in the end, I decided that the book, like the lives of real chaplains, would have to embrace the space in between.

Chaplaincy is a unique calling, and occupies a unique place in a complicated American religious landscape. Whether you are someone who wholeheartedly embraces the Christian Bible (or the sacred text of another religion), someone who tosses it out the window, or someone who was nicked by it as it flew past, I will happily stand with you if you want to join me out here on the middle ground.

Article originally published in The Association of Professional Chaplains newsletter, November 2013. archive.constantcontact.com/fs196/1101810986071/archive/1115478955604.html#LETTER.BLOCK12