For the next few months, Minty Fresh Mysteries will be profiling some real-life chaplains who’ve written interesting and thought-provoking accounts of their work. I’m kicking things off with Stacy N. Sergent, whose incredible Chaplain Jesus Lady blog I discovered while researching the second book in my hospital chaplain mystery series, A Death in Duck.
Stacy was born and raised in the mountains of Harlan, Kentucky. She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and a Master of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, as well as five units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Carolinas Medical Center and Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. Her experience varies from English teacher to French interpreter, children’s minister to return desk cashier at Lowe’s, all of it enriching in its own way. These days she is a gardener, a blogger, a crocheter, an occasional preacher, and a hospital chaplain at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston. She makes her home just across the bridge in Mount Pleasant with her wonderful dog, Hurley, who takes her for frequent walks on the beach.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): As a young, female hospital chaplain, do you find that you defy people’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Have there ever been times when you’ve been able to use that to your advantage?
Stacy Sergent (SS): Yes, I am sometimes a surprise to people. Just this week someone knocked on the door of our office and when I opened the door, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I was looking for the chaplain.” When I explained to him that I was the chaplain, I could tell he was completely caught off guard by this. He fumbled for words for a moment, then explained that he had previously met with one of our male chaplains for prayer. I offered to pray with him, but he declined and said he would come back later. That only happens occasionally. Usually once people get over the initial surprise, they open up to me and find that I’m able to meet their pastoral care needs, even if I’m not what they expected. There have been times when my presence as a young (and very short) woman has been disarming, usually with men expressing their grief in loud and angry ways. They expect me to be scared away, I think, but when they find that I don’t turn and run from their anger, their surprise is often enough to make a crack in the facade. It allows them to trust me with the sadness that is really behind their show of anger. And once they know that I can handle it, then the real grief work can begin.
MFM: I’ve heard it said that the role of a chaplain is to provide a “listening presence.” What does that mean to you? Do you ever want to stop being a listening presence and become, say, a “screaming, hollering banshee presence”?
SS: Being a listening presence is harder than it sounds, at least for me. It takes tremendous effort to stay in the moment with someone, not to let my mind wander, not to express disapproval or judgment, not to just think of what I need to say next. Active listening is tough and tiring. But it never fails to amaze me how much it means to someone to feel truly heard. So many times I’ve had a patient or family member say to me, “Thank you for everything you did for us. It meant so much.” And I find myself wondering what exactly I did — because I mostly remember being in the room with them and not saying anything. To anyone observing from the outside it would have looked very much like doing nothing. Yet being heard let them know they were not alone, and as a chaplain it’s my hope that by being there with them, even in silence, I bear witness to God’s presence with them, too. And yes, there are a few times when I’ve had to bite my tongue, when someone has literally made me want to scream, but I’ve always managed not to, so far.
MFM: You’ve written a wonderful memoir about your first few years of chaplaincy. I read it and loved it. But as a fiction writer, I want to know, if you could fictionalize your account, how would you change it? Would it become a black comedy? An erotic thriller? Would you change all the doctors into cowboys?
SS: First of all, thank you very much. I was beyond thrilled when I read your review of my book, since I am such a fan of your writing as well! This is a really interesting question. I never thought about what my story would be like as fiction. I suppose it could be wish fulfillment. I could, like your fictional heroine Lindsay Harding, eat lots of junk food and still be thin. And I could have romantic interludes in the elevator like the characters on Grey’s Anatomy. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is, after years of watching that show, that of all the thousands of times I’ve been on hospital elevators, never once have I had occasion to make out with a gorgeous doctor à la McDreamy or McSteamy. Of course, if I really wanted to sell books, I would need the hospital to be threatened by zombie hoards, only to be saved by the chaplain who is secretly an angsty vampire. All these missed opportunities . . . But I will say, I’m pretty happy with the story I did tell, and really touched with the messages I’ve been getting from people all over the place who say it resonated with them. I think so many of us experience times of questioning who we are and what God is up to (if anything) and what it all means. Exploring those questions honestly through my own life was an exhilarating writing experience, even without zombies or vampires or elevator makeout sessions. And people seem to enjoy reading it, so even better!