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How chaplains master the art of listening

POSTED: August 7, 2017 2:41 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Gigi Turley waits her turn as Cristi Fitzgerald has her hands dried by Jeri Lambourne as they gather for the World Spiritual Health Organization combined board certification and chaplain graduation ceremony at the William E. Christofferson, Salt Lake Veterans Home on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.

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Chaplains spend thousands of hours perfecting skills that many people assume come naturally: sitting and listening. They become masters of the ministry of presence, bringing the same professionalism to spiritual care that doctors bring to surgery.

"They're not just nice guys and gals that love people," said Mark Allison, founder and president of the World Spiritual Health Organization, at his institution's graduation ceremony Wednesday night.

Allison's latest crop of graduates had each spent the last year logging around 1,600 hours in hospitals or hospices, completing more than 3,000 pages of reading and writing more than 1,000 pages of personal reflections. They'd offered hundreds of prayers at patients' bedsides and shed many tears.

This extensive training prepares them to face the unexpected. Whether sitting by hospital beds, riding in police cars or traveling overseas with members of the military, chaplains are tasked with restoring calm in the midst of chaos.

"I once met with a patient's brother who was so distraught that he completely destroyed a waiting room," said Emma Peterson, a chaplain at a mid-sized hospital in Iowa. "I sat in that room while he ripped a television off the wall like I was at a spa."

Chaplains have no scripts to follow or party tricks to employ. They learn to meet tragedy with humility and an open mind, honing skills that would benefit anyone hoping to support friends and family members in need, said Lucinda Huffaker, director of supervised ministries at Yale Divinity School.

"Most of us try to be proactive and fix things and be in charge and be in control. This is so different from that," she said.

Helpful tactics, but no toolbox

One of the most common misconceptions about chaplains is that they're volunteers, people with strong personal faith who feel comfortable leading prayers.

Although some of the men and women who serve sports teams or police departments do come to their position with little more than a letter of recommendation from a pastor, professional training is becoming more and more common.

"We're not just nice people with a passion (for spiritual care) who go to church," said Saundra Shanti, lead staff chaplain at St. Mark's Hospital in Millcreek. "It matters so much to study and be prepared."

Hospitals routinely ask that chaplain applicants have at least a year of full-time chaplaincy training under their belt, as well as an advanced degree in theology or ministry. The National Guard asks that chaplain volunteers have ministry experience and an official endorsement from a faith group.

Training for chaplains comes in many forms, but programs generally focus on helping participants shed some of their worst conversational habits, Huffaker said.

"They've got to learn listening skills. They've got to learn how to be with people in crisis without making decisions for them or trying to fix it," she said.

People who enroll at Allison's World Spiritual Health Organization attend a four-hour group discussion each Wednesday night in addition to completing units of CPE, or clinical pastoral education, under the supervision of experienced chaplains.

"There is an academic side, a spiritual side and a psychology side to it. We blend those into a trinity of sorts to train chaplains to help people in crisis," Allison said.

On a typical Wednesday night, Allison delivers a lecture on a topic like working through grief and then asks participants to discuss the experiences they've had since the group last met.

"They have to present a case study of a chaplain visit. They present it to the group and the group critiques them, giving them encouragement and challenging them. The group might ask, 'Why did you say this when the patient said that?'" Allison said.

Chaplaincy training also includes personal spiritual care, such as conversations about a student's own experiences with trauma, Huffaker said.

"One of the things CPE supervisors look for is they want to be sure that a person is not coping with so much of their own stuff that they can't be available to others," she said.

The overall goal of training programs isn't to provide handy conversational tricks or a list of questions to ask. Instead, chaplains emerge with a deeper understanding of themselves and a recognition that they'll do their best work if they let patients take the lead, Peterson said.

"You learn how to have a calm pastoral presence, a non-anxious presence, regardless of the chaos around you," Peterson said.

Spiritual care

Unlike pastors or missionaries, chaplains aren't called to evangelize. They work in multifaith contexts, responding to the needs of patients rather than pushing their own agenda.

"What they provide, what is most important and effective, is presence," Huffaker said.

They measure their efforts in terms of how comfortable a patient is, rather than counting up the number of prayers they've said in a day or the souls they think they've saved.

"The chaplains I know have a certain kind of groundedness to them. If you can't depend on external measures and you're dealing with people who may or may not respond in a predictable way, you have to learn that it's not about you," Huffaker said.

Peterson noted that some of her most meaningful work has been made possible by silence. She'll come into a patient's room, start a casual conversation and stay open to whatever happens next.

"Good spiritual care is care that provides space for the patient or family member that you are visiting with to say and work through whatever it is that might be on their heart," she said. "I don't necessarily need to ask something profound for a patient to say something profound."

It sounds like a simple process, but it can take years of training for aspiring chaplains to overcome the urge to fill awkward silences or make blanket statements about God's healing powers, chaplaincy experts said.

"Sometimes people think we're bringing advice or cheering people up. We're not doing that," Shanti said. "I'm there to listen to people more deeply than they've probably ever been listened to before."

Through their ministry of listening, chaplains bring peace to people who feel like their world is falling apart, said Salt Lake City Police Department Assistant Chief Tim Doubt, who received an honorary chaplaincy certification at Wednesday's ceremony.

When the chief is out of town, Doubt gets the calls with bad news, dealing with injured officers or tragic shootings, he said. In those situations, "I ask, 'Have we called the chaplains?' They help get things settled down."
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