June 17, 2009
PASTOR, WHERE IS YOUR CHURCH? By Belen Gonzalez y Perez
What does it say about the chaplain?
While providing pastoral care at the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, New York the question is inevitably asked: “Pastor, where is your church?” I must admit that the question makes for an awkward moment.
Though not surprised, I genuinely understand that for most people pastoral ministry is associated with congregational ministry. It is common to think of most clergy serving as leaders in their faith groups and congregation.
The simple answer to the question is that the hospital is my parish and that ministry as director of pastoral care is my church-approved work. Although the hospital is not a congregation, nor am I the pastor of choice for each member of the hospital’s patient community and staff, it is my parish.
Comfortable with ambiguity
Pastoral care ministry beyond the congregation often comes with some degree of ambiguity and suspicion as suggested by the very question, “Pastor, where is your church?” Yet, it is precisely because of its ambiguity that chaplaincy is among the most challenging and rewarding ministries for the ordained pastor.
Usually when the question arises, it is accompanied by a sense of connection, appreciation, and gratitude by those for whom the chaplain’s ministry of presence, compassion and consolation met a need in a time of illness and crisis. Pastoral ministry beyond the congregation offers an unanxious presence of the Church’s witness where it is especially needed. Chaplains are ambassadors of the church’s pastoral commitment and affirm a compassionate presence to the vulnerable patient, as well to medical and support staff that care for them. Such ministry demonstrates the wisdom passed on from past generations to the present generation to empower and commission ministers for service in the world.
Attention to self-care as the clock keeps ticking
Unlike congregational ministry, pastoral care ministry in the hospital remains a 24 hour crisis ministry. A congregation can close its doors each day to open them again come morning, whereas the hospital never closes its doors and the emergency needs of others are attended to 24 hours each day of the year. Hospital ministry requires the chaplain to provide pastoral care on a moment’s notice.
The danger of overextending oneself physically and emotionally is always present. The chaplain maintaining a personal discipline of self-care becomes paramount for a healthy, dynamic, and sustainable ministry. It is often the case that hospital chaplains require and seek out congregational pastors for prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. As such, hospital ministry is shared ministry between chaplains and congregational clergy of many faith traditions. Congregations are in fact the life blood of hospital chaplaincies, and without them chaplains remain in isolation from their faith community.
Chaplains belong to the faith community
The question “Pastor, where is your church?” becomes all the more meaningful because it resounds with opportunity for chaplains to pause and examine their congregational connections. Moreover, this reflection is an invitation for congregations to pause and examine their shared ministry with lay and ordained ministers in non-congregational and specialized settings.
Although my parish is the hospital where I am called to a professional ministry, my congregation always remains a faith community that remembers me in its prayers and where I gather with the faithful each week to fellowship, study Holy Scriptures, and receive Sacraments as spiritual nourishment for ongoing ministry.
Community as survival is in our DNA
The question, “Where is your church?” is one about community and family. It is a about the inner longing to experience belonging in a community that cares for you. When I hear the question, it reminds me of the difficulties and challenges a patient and their loved ones face within the sterile cold walls of a hospital during sickness and adversity that can only be made bearable by the caring comfort of human compassion and community.
The question surges from our very DNA and the primal desire for survival and our basic human strategy for survivability as members of a community. Human beings seek out community for our very survival—it is no less important to the sick in a hospital to experience a supportive community that is accessible to them. It is often the case that a chaplain is the only representative of a faith community immediately available to the patient and their loved ones. The chaplain stands as a representative of the larger community of faith lending its support in a time of crisis. The ministry of a chaplain “bridges” the gap between the hospitalized and the faith communities that gather beyond the walls of a patient’s bedside.
The Chaplain has power to create community
So it is that from a simple question by a patient that more is at play than meets the eye. The chaplain is in a privileged space to see the patient through “clinical eyes,” to discern that what is being said is primal and often a visceral need for community. It is a cry for support by another human being in crisis who is cut off from their normal resources.
A truth of pastoral care ministry in a hospital is that often when a patient asks a question, it is an invitation to the chaplain to accompany and journey with patient in their crisis. The wisdom of faith is that the chaplain does not journey alone. The chaplain has the power to create the faith community and as its representative, accompanies and joins to the faith community the sick and vulnerable in their hour of need.
Belen Gonzalez y Perez, M.A.R., M.Div., D.Min.
Director of Chaplaincy Services & Education
Long Island College Hospital
Brooklyn, New York
To contact Dr. Perez, click here.
Posted by Perry Miller, Editor at June 17, 2009 10:58 PM