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Chaplaincy Requires Courage to Tell the Truth

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Pastoral Care Week is a time set aside by organizations and individuals around the world to recognize the contributions of professional chaplains and pastoral counselors.
Each year, a different aspect of pastoral care is brought to light with the annual theme. This year’s theme was “Prophetic Voice,” which, I have to say, was not my favorite.

Being a prophetic voice – a truth-teller – is one of the most anxiety-producing parts of being a chaplain for me. 

I can listen all day long and be a supportive, nonjudgmental presence. I can celebrate diversity of beliefs and sit in silence with the dying.

But speaking truth, even getting confrontational? That’s something else entirely. I have had to learn to do it, and it is still not easy.

Sometimes my prophetic voice is needed when a family is having a hard time facing the reality of a diagnosis. When doctors have done all they can and the family cannot accept that, I try as gently as possible to prepare them for the worst.

That may mean asking difficult questions or even challenging their assurances of miraculous healing. 

It might seem cruel, but at times it is necessary to allow a more peaceful goodbye for the patient and a healthier beginning of the grief process for loved ones.

Other times, being a prophet means telling a doctor that her patient needs his friends in the room with him right now, even though it isn’t usually done this way. It might also mean asking the coroner to consider whether an autopsy is absolutely necessary – even though it is policy under certain circumstances – in the case of a patient whose family’s religious beliefs forbid tampering with the body.

Sometimes, it is my job to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” and the only answer I hear out there is the sound of the wind. I feel almost as crazy as John the Baptist sometimes, and maybe I am.

When a patient can’t get the treatment he needs – for various reasons I can’t detail here – all I can do is join with his family, friends and medical care team in saying, “This is wrong.” 

To anyone who will listen, as high up the ladder of power as I can get, I’ll say, “This is wrong. This is wrong.”

And at the end of the day, nothing changes. I get a speech about why things must be this way, and I cry with the patient and all those who care about him.

I don’t like being a prophet, and I suppose no one really does. The biblical ones certainly didn’t. This is why it’s not a job you choose. Instead, it’s a job for which you are chosen.

Truth has sharp edges, and it’s just as likely to hurt the one wielding it as the one at whom it’s being pointed.

If my voice shakes as I confront the family of a dying patient with their reality, it’s because I am terrified by the reality that I will one day be where they are. I will watch the ones I love die, and I too will die.

If I have trouble speaking truth to those in authority, it’s because I still feel powerless – too timid to claim the pastoral authority and professional identity I should own.

If my heart aches at the injustices of our healthcare system, it’s partly because I know that I am complicit in the brokenness of that system by my failure to work for change.

For next year’s Pastoral Care Week, I’d love a more “warm and fuzzy” kind of theme because that’s much more my forte. For now, I suppose I must continue sharpening my truth-speaking skills. A dull prophet just won’t do.

Stacy Sergent is a chaplain at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is a CBF-endorsed chaplain and a graduate of Gardner-Webb Divinity School in Boiling Springs, N.C. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, Chaplain Jesus Lady, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @StacyNSergent.