By Crystal Schmalz
Imagine a hospital with more than 1,200 patient beds, a level one trauma center, a teaching hospital with medical students and resident physicians, a place with over twenty-thousand employees, and multiple intensive care units. Imagine walking fifteen minutes from your office to get to your patients in clinical areas. Imagine sitting with patients in some of their most challenging moments in life: embracing death, understanding a new diagnosis, living with the shock of an unexpected tragic crisis, enduring the end stages of a terminal illness, and coping with the meaning of suffering and life. Think about a silence where words are absent, a time when tears are uncontrolled, a space where only presence matters, and moments where spirituality, faith, and religion are at the center of the mind. For me, this is hospital chaplaincy and the ministry to which I have been called.
I began my ministry in hospital chaplaincy in the fall of 2011. I enrolled in a Clinical Pastoral Education class and became an extern at a small community hospital where I worked in an intensive care and general medicine unit. I then did a yearlong residency as a chaplain where I completed four CPE units and worked fulltime, sometimes working up to sixteen-hour shifts. In one year I saw more deaths, trauma, and sadness than many people will experience in a lifetime. In some moments, all I could do was reach out to God and find peace in the embrace of silence. I learned much about myself, life, ministry, and about who I am as a minister and why I do what I do. In the fall of 2013, I was hired as a full-time staff chaplain at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. I currently am a chaplain in five units in the hospital, including an intensive care unit, a general medicine area, and a cardiology floor.
Each day brings new challenges, unexpected cases, and people who may or may not be engaged in a faith community. Many of the patients I work with are not involved in a local congregation. Some identify with a faith tradition, but many call themselves “spiritual” more than “religious.” With this in mind I often step in to provide pastoral care to these people, when a spiritual leader is absent in their life. The lead and empowerment of the Holy Spirit gives me the ability to bring the presence of Jesus Christ to patients and families.
I often find myself thinking of Isaiah 61, where the prophet wrote about the coming messiah. Isaiah prophesied about how Jesus would bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, comfort those who mourn, and give a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3). When I have challenging days, I come back to this passage of Scripture to find meaning in what sometimes appears to be chaos and madness.
Chaplaincy is a part of the church. In Pentecost, we often emphasize sharing the gospel. This emphasis is powerful, and often encourages people to hear the Word of the Lord. As a professional chaplain, I have an ethical obligation to advocate for a patient’s belief system while still maintaining my spiritual identity. This line is sometimes blurry, and chaplains will often tell you they live on the edge of ministry where worlds often collide. As a licensed minister in the United Pentecostal Church International, I am honored to be able to represent my faith tradition, while still upholding my ethical obligations for working in a public hospital.
Five years ago, I never dreamed I would be a chaplain. The Lord has opened many doors for me. I have been a guest lecturer for the medical school, a panelist on Schwartz Rounds (open discussion forum for caregivers), officiated ceremonies, anointed people with oil, prayed with the sick, served communion, prayed at multi-faith services, and preached at churches and nursing homes. God continues to open doors for me to be a living witness of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. I continue to learn more about what it means to be and do ministry when no one acknowledges, recognizes, or knows it is happening. My mission is to walk humbly before the Lord and keep God’s commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
People often ask me how I can be a chaplain. They often remark about how they could never be a chaplain. In these moments, I remember this conversation with God. Walking into the hospital, I quickly prayed, “God walk with me.” I swiftly felt a correction in my spirit and heard a still small voice say, “What do you mean, walk with you? I was here before you arrived. I will be here when you leave. You walk with me.” As a chaplain, I am walking with God. God is already there, and will be there when I leave. I am simply a part of the plan, a vessel for God to use. I am not the savior, the fixer, or the healer. I am a servant who sits and listens to people and accompanies them in the difficult moments and seasons of life. I get to journey with people and be with them when they need a spiritual leader. I celebrate my calling, and the “out of the box” way God is using me to pastor.
The above article, “Walking By Faith: Hospital Chaplaincy,” is written by Crystal Schmalz. The article was excerpted from May/June issue of Reflections Magazine.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.