by Caleb Mynatt
With a nearly 30-year career as a chaplain under his belt, Paul Byrd can’t imagine his life being any different. But before his career began as a resident in a Clinical Pastoral Education program, Byrd had never really considered pursuing a career in chaplaincy.
In childhood, Byrd thought he would grow up to become a minister of music at a church. He had always had an interest in music and had a great relationship with his own minister of music at his church. He even got a degree in music education from Emory University.
It wasn’t until he got a job as a psychiatric assistant at Norton Hospital in Louisville, while waiting to begin his Master of Divinity studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that he thought it might be time for a career change. It was working at that hospital, where he conducted group and individual counseling, that he learned what his real passion was: people.
“I learned from the hospital that I really loved getting to know people’s stories and connecting with people in their struggles,” said Byrd. “I audited a course in pastoral care and fell in love with it. Then I told the dean I wanted to step away from music for a minute and explore pastoral care.”
In that change, Byrd says he found his true calling. Now, having served as a staff chaplain at Children’s Hospital of Alabama since 2003, Byrd is receiving the Carl Hart Award for Excellence in Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry, the highest honor a CBF-endorsed chaplain can receive.
“It means a lot to know that someone nominated me for this award,” said Byrd. “It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s also extremely validating.”
The Carl Hart Award for Excellence in Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry is awarded each year to a CBF-endorsed chaplain who exemplifies excellence in ministry in a specialized setting. The award is named for Carl Hart, a founding member of CBF and a leader in the formation of CBF’s chaplaincy program. Hart, a renowned prison chaplain, was known for his meaningful, holistic approach to counseling, as well as someone who advocated for the work of chaplains. According to Renée Owen, that’s exactly what they’re looking for in a person chosen to receive this award.
“We’re looking for chaplains who are meeting individuals and families in their own journeys,” said Renée Owen, Director of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling for CBF. “They’re offering hope and the presence of God to all people, regardless of their gender, faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation or anything else.”
Byrd’s career has been exceptional, especially because of the setting in which he provides counseling. As a chaplain in the oncology department of a pediatric hospital, Byrd’s focus is providing counseling to children who have received cancer diagnoses, as well as to their families. This setting can be an extremely challenging one in which to work, but it’s a setting in which Byrd excels.
According to Byrd, the curiosity he himself had as a child lets him understand some of what the children are thinking. For him, listening to and understanding the questions of the children to whom he ministers are the most important parts of his job.
“I think that tapping into the questions children have and what it’s like for them when they go through illness and struggle is important,” said Byrd. “It’s so easy for the focus to be on the parents’ concerns and pretend that the children are aloof and don’t understand what’s going on. I really want to understand what they’re saying and thinking.”
And although the job of a chaplain is to help provide understanding and guidance, Byrd says that listening is truly the best way to provide the care and comfort that children and their families need. Byrd maintains that his job is not to take control of a conversation or provide all the answers someone is seeking. His job is done best when he just tries to listen and be present with the patients, because that is the ultimate way to provide comfort.
“This is a ministry of presence,” said Byrd. “It could be presence in the awkward silences, but it’s ideally presence where we listen. We want them to know that in this struggle, they are not alone; God is with them. So, if I’m talking too much, I’m doing it wrong.”
As for the setting of pediatric chaplaincy, Byrd can’t imagine working in any place that would be different. Byrd says he loves working with children, despite the circumstances in which he meets them, because children give people hope. The way they want to remain in the present with him, even amidst severe illness, is inspiring to Byrd. He thinks children are truly amazing, which makes his job all the more rewarding.
“I never thought I’d be a pediatric chaplain, but then I thought it would be a lot more fun than regular chaplaincy,” said Byrd. “I haven’t ever had to look back.”
Even as he is receiving this award, Byrd remains as humble as always. He didn’t pursue the field of chaplaincy for recognition, but to make a difference in the lives of children that really need it most. It’s that fact, and his exceptional devotion to it, according to Owen, that make him worthy off receiving such an honor.
“Paul doesn’t meet people only physically where they are, but also emotionally and spiritually in their journeys,” said Owen. “He gives children and their families hope in the sacred moments of their journey and creates a safe and trusting space to share their story.”