Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Reflections of a retired hospital chaplain

The Rev Lindsay Johnstone, a former hospital chaplain in Sydney, Australia
(Ed: After many years as a chaplain in a major teaching hospital in inner city Sydney, Lindsay has retired to Oxfordshire, U.K.)

The heart of chaplaincy ministry.
There is a sacredness to being welcomed to share the pilgrimage of people who are especially vulnerable. Jesus, who died to change our lives and those of patients, clients and staff to eternal hope, has caused the Holy Spirit to live within us. As we cooperate with him, He loves others through us, sometimes verbally and sometimes through presence alone.

While the chaplain is observing, the Word and the Holy Spirit do it all.[i]
There is a powerful opportunity to witness God working well beyond the obvious input of a chaplain, including patients being converted through their own reading of gospels they had been given. Getting to know staff members over a period of time would lead to pastoral discussions relating to their work, family relationships, and enquiries about belief. A question I was asked was, “Why could Nebuchadnezzar and Ribbentrop go to heaven and a nice guy like me go to hell?” Countless patients could ventilate their health and pastoral needs, with some finding new hope. As a senior chaplain, I could mentor pastoral care students, and liaise with the hospital executive, and facilitate health service- based online training.

There is no place for self-glorification nor the glamorisation of other chaplains.
The protocol of confidentiality enhances the heart of one-on-one ministry and helps to hedge out reportable results and public reputation. On one of my long train commutes to the hospital, I looked up a passage in Deuteronomy 30 to seek to be stroked by the Lord with affirmation for serving him! Suddenly my mood changed as I read, “The Lord will circumcise your heart that you may love him.” I went through an unexpected experience of mortification and self-loathing, being confronted with the darkness in my heart and my total unworthiness. Sometime later I was impacted at a deeper level by Galatians 2:20, properly translated – “I have been crucified with Christ… it is no longer I who live… the life I now live in the flesh I live in the faith which comes from the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is in dying to self that we can serve.

It is sacred to see and celebrate God working outside our own comfort zones.
I came to cherish working with chaplains of different backgrounds. Respect grew with chaplains of other faiths, but without the need to compromise my own convictions. It was a sacred experience to be a regular presence among medical and administrative staff, and long-term patients; and to be a support for some patients and ex-patients who could not find meaningful support in their local church. The power of Christian love is essential in relating with the unusual.  It is a privilege to relate with people who did not seem to fit a norm in many churches. One long-term Christian patient preferred to be identified as of the opposite gender.

The Lord works powerfully while the chaplain seeks to find and fit in with what God is doing. Midnight call-outs with a one and a half hour drive from my home in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to the hospital were a favourite part of my work and a special privilege. A son requested a visit for his dying mother. When I explained that I talk and pray aloud, even if it seems the patient cannot hear, he said emphatically, “She won’t hear anything!” I addressed her by name and she opened her eyes. Timing is beyond us, and another callout patient died minutes after my visit. It is important to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance for what to do and not do in specific situations. I visited a patient, whom the doctors said a few days earlier, would soon die. When I visited her, she was dressed and packed, and was going home. She had been prayed for and anointed with oil[ii] to receive healing two days before by a chaplaincy colleague.

I gave another patient a printout of a special blessing[iii] I used with him. A couple of days later, he told me that he had made several photocopies of it and gave it to some of his friends.

Ministry with mothers who lost their precious babies in the womb or at birth would sometimes be followed by pastoral support for a nurse or a social worker.

When praying quietly on my own in a multi-faith prayer room, if a Muslim entered, I would in my heart pray that God would give this person a saving vision of Jesus. One time, a Muslim lady in the prayer room asked me to explain the Trinity to her, and then the Holy Spirit. She accepted a copy of Luke’s Gospel with an article on “Why Jesus is essential.”[iv] I do not know what she did with it.

Volunteer chaplains have a special contribution to make. They can offer a dimension that complements the role of chaplains who may have spent all or most of their working life in employed pastoral roles. Some volunteers have come out of professional and business careers where they have exercised considerable responsibility. This helps in their understanding of many patients. They also often have distinct expertise that they can add to the functioning of a chaplaincy team.

Every ministry sometimes has to cope with bureaucracy and opposition.

Pro-forma official reports, often done on line, to prove the effectiveness of chaplaincy are of themselves devoid of spiritual value. They seem to be necessary because of the need to satisfy public sector funding bodies of “evidence based” chaplaincy effectiveness. Content-wise they are meaningless and distract the energy of chaplains. The only spiritual benefit I can find with them is that they are another opportunity for a chaplain to die to self![v] The real work is hidden. Such reports can provide no meaningful guide.

In any Christian ministry team, there can sometimes be conflict and even opposition. Paul referred to spiritual opposition as a “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:7.[vi] When the Lord told Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you”, he was, in effect, saying, “When you face difficulties, be encouraged and strengthened by the intimate reality of my presence in the lavish outpouring of favour upon you that you could not merit if you tried. Bask contentedly in the overflow of my inexpressible love beyond the comprehension of height, breadth and depth. I am with you to strengthen and nurture you.”

The key to effective chaplaincy is an unhurried and perpetual locking-in to intimacy with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then he picked us up and set us down in the highest heaven in company with Jesus. (Message version of Ephesians 2:5). The longer the commute to work, the greater the opportunity to bathe the ministry of the day in intimacy with Jesus. A major theme of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is that though still on earth, by faith we can enter into the reality that our inner being is “in the heavenly places”. Though still very much living in the earthly fallen order, where we share not only in Christ’s resurrection, but also in his ascension.





[i] Compare the words of Martin Luther, “the Word did it all” in a sermon at Wittenberg in 1522.
[ii] James 5:14
[iii] My own wording, but based on input from the approach of Roy Godwin
[iv] The Essential Jesus”, an Australian translation of Luke’s Gospel
[v] Mark 8:34
[vi] The word for thorns is used in Numbers 33:55, Joshua 23:13 and Judges 2: 4 to refer to human opponents of God’s people, and is nowhere used in the Bible to refer to illnesses.

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