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April 8, 2012

A Review of "A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity"--- by Orlo C. Strunk, Jr., Ph.D., D.D.


It has been over half a century since I served as a hospital chaplain and even then it was sort of incognito. As a doctoral student at Boston University I had landed a part-time job as the Executive Secretary of the Institute of Pastoral Care, at the time one of the two major organizations providing Clinical Pastoral Education to seminarians. For a variety of reasons—mostly financial—the Institute had me share an office with the hospital chaplain of the Massachusetts General Hospital—rent free. Jim Burns was the chaplain and to say that he was overworked would be putting it mildly. Partly because of his work load, and noting that some days my administrative work for the Institute was light, he recruited me to call on patients “if I wanted to.”

At the time I had had but one summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education and from that experience decided that I wasn’t about to switch from preparing for a teaching ministry in one of my denomination’s colleges to that of a health care ministry in a general or mental hospital. That decision was enforced when one of the first patients Jim asked me to visit was a truck driver from Tennessee who, while driving through the city of Boston, developed severe back pains, serious enough to lead to his being hospitalized.

In those days a hospital chaplain wore a grey jacket quite similar to what physicians and orderlies wore except that on the chaplain’s lapels were two silver crosses. So as I entered the truck driver’s room, he stared at me—probably hoping I was a doctor—then quickly shifted his gaze to the silver crosses, and barked, “Now what the hell do you want?”

I was reminded of that ancient memory when William E. Alberts invited me to read Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, and as I read Bill’s extraordinary accounts of some of his interactions with the thousands of patients he has served in his health care ministry, I could not help but wonder what my career decision might have been had I known, and truly internalized, Chaplain Alberts’ rich notions of what hospital chapaincy is all about.

Here’s a sample of the “one-liners” that frequently summarize the specific events he has experienced and records with particular patients or their families:

“Chaplaincy is enabling patients and their loved ones to tell their stories, the telling of which is good for the soul—and the mind and body.”

“Chaplaincy is about discovering the little things that mean a lot to patients and their loved ones.”

“Chaplaincy is about both feet planted responsively amidst the realities and strengths and needs of patients and their loved ones.”

“Chaplaincy, like any meaningful relationship, is about taking the time to respond to human need...”

“Chaplaincy is about helping patients get better not be better.”

“...the bottom line of chaplaincy is not about belief but about caring for patients and their loved ones.”

Each of these challenging snips is a generalization of a particular encounter Chaplain Alberts has had with a patient or with his or her family. And each one—it seems to me—could serve as a topic for theological, religious, and spiritual discussion, as well as a portrait of a contemporary hospital chaplain’s work.

But even if one were not a chaplain or considering hospital chaplaincy as an expression of ministry, how the author visualizes pastoral care would be applicable to any priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or religious layperson desiring to authentically offer care to those in need.


“Pastoral care is about being a witness to the pain and courage of human love.”

“Pastoral care is about being fully present and staying with grieving loved ones—however long their need.”

“Pastoral care is about remembering and saying people’s names—not just about praying for them in another’s name.”

“Pastoral care is about enabling patients to tell their stories, the sharing of which affirms and empowers the teller and often provides wisdom for the listener.”

“Pastoral care involves getting close to people. And getting close to people involves getting close to people.”

“Pastoral care is about giving grief the hearing it needs rather than remaining bottled up and beside itself.”

“Pastoral care is about embodying and facilitating and revering kindness.”

In these times of technological innovations and electronic communications human touch frequently takes a thorough thrashing. It may be that an authentic spiritual ministry—whether from a hospital chaplain or a parish pastor—is becoming one of a very few last opportunities to salvage and embrace a particular human encounter where empowerment, not the promotion of a particular world view or a narrow set of religious or political beliefs, permeates the human relationship. If that be so, then Chaplain Alberts’ willingness to share his myriad patient encounters with those in pain, turmoil, and crisis can serve well as a guide for all of us who truly want to explore better ways to care.
—Orlo C. Strunk, Jr., Ph.D., D.D.
Managing Editor Emeritus
The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling

Bill Alberts was a hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center from December 7, 1992 to July 15, 2011, when he retired. Dr. Alberts is a nationally known writer and an occasional contributor to Counterpunch. A diplomate and member of the recently named Dover, New Hampshire Chapter of CPSP (formerly the New England Chapter), his e-mail address is

Purchase Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity

Posted by Perry Miller, Editor at April 8, 2012 9:58 PM

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