Is chaplaincy finally finding a place in the public discussion or is that the news cycle merely needs more items to write about round out its constant need for new material? I hope it is the former and always remain skeptical enough to expect the latter. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on what it means for chaplaincy to be profiled in multiple media outlets during the pandemic.
Chaplaincy is in a unique place because I think we find ourselves sitting on the fence of “essential” and non-essential employees. On the one hand, the physical care component of treating the virus is paramount, and with limitations in protective gear, it is very easy to limit the access of care to those who have to save physical life. Yet, in much of medicine today, there is a push to recognize the importance of holistic care, this making psychosocial and spiritual issues almost as important in caring for someone ill. And for psychosocial and spiritual care, approaches of tele-health, tele-support, can be relied upon when physical presence cannot be achieved. (I will plan to have more to say about the virtual visit and some of the innovations and challenges I foresee).
Chaplains are essential, yet I would suggest that the essential nature of our work hasn’t been fully seen just yet. I think the round one of remaining engaged in our professional settings is coming to an end and now will be the part of helping to pick up the pieces of our staffs, our colleagues, and each other. We have not experienced the wave of complicated grief that surely exists. With the death of a family member and the funeral/memorial service/shiva etc. fraught with so much loneliness, we can only imagine what the long term toll might be (another topic to go deeper into).
I want to draw your attention to one of many articles written about chaplains during COVID-19, “The Rise of the Chaplains,” by Wendy Cadge. In it, the author offers an overview of one element of chaplaincy,
In interviews I conducted with 65 chaplains across greater Boston, I discovered that the work they do around death is what most unifies them across sectors and distinguishes them from social workers and others they work alongside. It is not surprising, therefore, to read about chaplains running toward death rather than away from it in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
While I would suggest this might be a slight overstatement, I think her point is that chaplains can and will stand in challenging moments, being trained specifically to confront the emotional, spiritual, existential pain and suffering of others. It is something chaplains can offer in conjunction with the rest of the care.
At the end of the article, she circles back to the same point, stating:
Chaplains name death for individuals and organizations in our death-phobic society. They support the dying and their loved ones at the end of life. And they help us process and make sense of death in the immediate aftermath. The chaplains at the doors of ICU rooms are whispering prayers, connecting the ill to family members through FaceTime, and, when someone dies, supporting the next of kin by phone. Chaplains usually do this work quietly, around the margins. But with the pandemic, their work has moved to the center of the American religious experience.
As I wrote in last night’s post, while chaplains are doing so much, there may still remain a sense of inadequacy. I am most caught with the challenge of what it means to “work quietly, around the margins.” Perhaps the skepticism I raised at the beginning is that chaplains often don’t get the credit for the holy, sacred work we do. Perhaps deep down we wish to be seen as other healthcare professionals are seen. And yet, here we are, being shown to the world as an integral, core element of support during crisis, whether global like what we are currently living in, or the individual crisis of death and illness we confront daily.