Each fall, COMISS Network: the Network on Ministry in Specialized Settings, sponsors a week to recognize and affirm Pastoral Care providers. This year’s theme is Spiritual Resilience. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship endorses over 728 chaplains and pastoral counselors who provide pastoral care in a variety of specialized settings. This week we will hear from six of these as they reflect on spiritual resilience in their ministries. As you read their reflections take a moment to express appreciation to those who provide pastoral care in your community.
By Lisa Jeffcoat
Looking in the mirror was one of my favorite games growing up. When I was a young child, Mom and I would make silly faces at each other in the mirror. When I was an older child, on special occasions, if I was very good, Grandmother Jeffcoat would let me hold her fancy mirror—the one with the gold handle—while I brushed my hair and pretended I was a princess. And as a teenager, I would stand in front of my mirror and sing my heart out pretending to be Amy Grant.
Looking at ourselves in literal and metaphorical mirrors as adults can be much more complex and challenging. As a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Supervisor my ministry involves inviting chaplaincy students to learn by reflecting on their own actions and feelings in ways that help them develop the awareness and skills needed to be spiritually present with patients, their loved ones, and our staff colleagues in healthcare settings.
I am so grateful for the ministry of these chaplains at patients’ bedsides, during nursing huddles, in waiting rooms, leading chapel services and blessing hands. But I wish everyone could have the gift my role brings of seeing the hard emotional and spiritual work Chaplains do to learn the challenging art of simply being present.
Early in a CPE unit I’ll often hear a student ask something like, “Why did that patient appreciate so much when all I did was just sit there?” When the student first looks in the mirror s/he sees “just sitting there” as doing nothing, but with reflection on the action of “just sitting there” students come to realize that it’s hard work doing nothing! There’s a litany of gifts a Chaplain offers by the things s/he does not do. Simply being there means the Chaplain didn’t offer advice, didn’t try to fix the person or his/her problem, didn’t dismiss the patient’s feelings with “at least…” statements, didn’t try to simplify a complex spectrum of feelings by quoting a single scripture verse, didn’t try to “correct” theology with which the Chaplain doesn’t agree, and didn’t use prayer solely as a way to get out of the room.
Instead, the Chaplain did the much harder work of being present with the patient in a place of suffering, in the face of big questions without easy answers, in the holy ground of unknowing. Bearing witness to students’ journeys toward the awareness and skills it takes to simply be present is one of the most sacred gifts in my life; when I celebrate Spiritual Care Week, this is the gift for which I thank God.
Whereas I used the mirrors of my childhood to pretend, chaplaincy students use mirroring tools in CPE to help them stop pretending. As they share their internal dialogue from patient encounters with supervisors and peers, Chaplains get really honest with themselves about what “comes up” for them emotionally in response to these experiences. Again, I wish everyone could see the courage Chaplains show in these moments as they confront their deepest fears; their internalized messages of shame; their blindness to their own privilege, racism, and prejudices; and the tensions between the theology they profess and the lived theology they recognize showing up in their words and prayers in the clinic.
This cycle of action, reflection and growth is difficult and often painful (mention CPE to your minister friends and their faces will tell you what I mean). But for students who stick with it the journey ultimately leads to freedom and peace, and this is what empowers Chaplains to be fully present, to be still and know, to be the hands and feet and ears and voices of peace beyond what the world can give, to be—to all the patients CBF Chaplains will visit during this Spiritual Care Week—a mirror to see the image of God within themselves.
Lisa Jeffcoat is a CBF-endorsed chaplain serving as Associate Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at John Muir Health-Concord Campus in Concord, Calif.