Dispatches from the Creation Wars

A Chaplain’s Job

Most of my readers have read my criticisms of Gordon Klingenschmitt, the disgraced Navy chaplain. A couple of more recent controversies involving chaplains help illustrate what distinguishes a good chaplain from a bad one. Both chaplain controversies were at private hospitals and both were either fired or forced to resign. The first was in Florida, where a chaplain’s firing has sparked protests from local churches. The Worldnutdaily reports:

In a scenario reminiscent of Navy Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, who was removed from the military service because of his prayers “in Jesus’ name,” Harvey recently was “involuntarily terminated,” according to a hospital letter.

He said his supervisor had called him into her office, and ordered that not only would he not prayer further “in Jesus’ name,” but that he was to instruct his volunteer chaplains to follow the same restriction.

That looks a lot like a serious oversimplification of the full story:

The hospital said it dismissed Harvey from his $48,000-a-year post not because he was praying in the name of Jesus Christ, “but [because] the official duties of a paid position were not being met. Those duties include being respectful of the different religious beliefs of our patients and the ability to lead them in their faith in their time of need.”

Hospital officials told a newspaper guidelines from the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education teach respect for all religions…

David Johnson, a member of the Association of Professional Chaplains’ ethics committee, said chaplains in such situations have to set aside their own religious faith to serve the people around them.

However, Harvey said he affiliated with the International Association of Christian Chaplains, not the professional organization, because the professional group also recognizes belief systems that Christianity does not allow.

The second situation involved the director of pastoral care at a hospital in Maryland. JewsOnFirst reports:

As director of pastoral care for a community hospital in Maryland, the Rev. Kay Myers halted the placement of sectarian Christian books in patients’ rooms.

Myers said her decision was one of the carefully measured steps she had taken during her seven-year tenure to move her department to a professional level of pastoral care. The hospital’s response was not so measured. The CEO immediately countermanded Myers. Within months she was forced to resign.

Myers, a Presbyterian minister, was in her seventh year directing the chaplaincy of Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury last winter, when she moved to halt the Gideons’ long-time practice of going from room to room distributing their books…

Myers said Newberry also brushed aside an email from the hospital’s infection control department recommending against placing the books in patients’ rooms because they might harbor long-lived pathogens. He was similarly dismissive of a report Myers sent him from an online chaplain bulletin board that discussed bibles as an infection control issue.

Myers told JewsOnFirst that, when she asked the hospital’s housekeeping department to assume the task of placing the Gideons’ books in patients’ rooms, the infection control department emailed her again. Infection control “recommended that the pastoral care department discontinue the practice of placing the books in patients’ rooms because they can be a medium for resistant organisms.”

Myers said she forwarded the email to her supervisor, a vice president, asking for direction.

Emails about the infection issue circulated around the hospital for a couple of weeks. Ultimately the local newspaper became aware of them and led a Saturday edition last February with a story about the hospital removing bibles.

The following Monday, CEO Newberry called Myers into his office and, she said, berated her for an “overwhelmingly harsh and abusive” half hour.

At her annual review, in April, she found a “blistering” letter from Newberry in her file. The hospital requested her resignation.

I think these two situations demonstrate two very different approaches to pastoral care, not just in hospitals but in military chaplains as well. There seem to be two groups of chaplains with two different conceptions of what their job is and how to go about it. The statement from the fired chaplain in Leesburg about how he refused to belong to a chaplain’s organization that “recognizes belief systems that Christianity does not allow” is a telling reference to that difference.

One group of chaplains believes that their primary job is to provide counsel and comfort to those within their work area, whether a hospital or a military unit. They further believe that they can only do that by meeting those people where they are, with whatever religious views they already have. In short, they believe that their job is to serve the individuals they encounter.

It’s a fictional example, of course, but this type of chaplain was portrayed well in the Father Mulcahy character in MASH. He was Catholic, but he ministered to protestants, Jews and even atheists, and he always tried to meet them where they were. He even took a great interest in the local Korean religions, which were more animist in nature.

There was one episode where a local Korean man needed surgery but would not consent to it until a priestess came in and did a ceremony to ward off the evil spirits in the operating room. Another character on the show (Burns, I think) was shocked that the chaplain would allow that to go on and Mulcahy replied that he was looking forward to seeing the ritual. It was clear that he understood that the goal was to make the patient feel better, regardless of whether one regards their religion as true.

The other group believes that their primary job is to represent their denomination or religion, and to do so in a manner that proselytizes rather than provides comfort. They think their job is to convert people or to change their minds rather than to act as a neutral counselor. They don’t care that a portion of those under their charge don’t share their views; they think the propagation of those views is more important than caring for the people they’re in charge of. In short, they just don’t get it.