CPE reflections (2)

2. Agendas and the chaplaincy

Gerald Wylie (Agendas and the chaplaincy) highlights how agendas — even even well-intentioned ones — both personal and professional can ‘hinder effective ministry in the healthcare setting’.

In terms of personal agendas, some people may help others ‘in order to gain acceptance and to feel better about themselves’. This can lead to treating patients as needs to be met rather than as persons with value who are worth getting to know and understand. Other people may seek to ‘do for’ those who their prejudices suggest they’d prefer not to ‘be with’ (e.g., smokers or obese people). This can result in caring out of an inner attitude of disapproval rather than of love — aiming to ‘fix’ them by making them acceptable — or attempting to ‘escape’ at the first available opportunity.

In terms of professional agendas, there is a consistent temptation to elevate the functions that serve the chaplain’sfundamental role into ends in themselves. Lawrence Holst defines the chaplains role as ‘the attempt to help others, through words, acts, and relationships, to experience as fully as possible the reality of God’s presence and love in their lives‘. Various functions serve this, including:

  • Prayer and Bible reading,
  • Evangelism, and
  • Psychological analysis.

There is often pressure to trade in the chaplain’s role in for one of its subordinate functions. People in churches to which the chaplain is connected, for example, want to hear all about the conversions this week or think that a chaplain has ‘sold out’ if he or she doesn’t offer to pray with every single patient. (There thus may well be a PR job to be done here by chaplains on behalf of the chaplain’s role!)

The remedy Wylie suggests for the problem agendas is to adopt the example of Jesus. Jesus ‘never operated under a faulty agenda’ because he ‘was always and totally characterized by the manifestation of the love and presence of God’. Jesus’ ministry to the needy and hurting — people like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the man born blind (John 9), or the doubt-wracked disciple Thomas (John 20) — provides us with a template.

What emerges is the overwhelming priority of personal relationships. Treating people as people not projects. Not ignoring their physical needs (although recognising our limited capacity to deal with those needs) or questions in order to leap directly to the spiritual stuff.

All of this is helpful and good. As is Wylie’s emphasis on developing an awareness of the chaplains deficiencies and tendencies to cave in to particular personal and professional agendas. And on conducting ministry in prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit.

However, Wylie occasionally strays towards an implicit denial of his stated conviction that ministry ‘when carried out through the power of God, is going to be an effective ministry, in spite of our deficiencies’. That is, a stronger emphasis on the sovereignty of God I think would both ground his positive proposals more solidly — what else gives Paul confidence in the case of the Corinthians apart from his belief that whoever plants and whoever waters ‘it is God who gives the growth’ (1 Cor 3.6) — andcorrect some of the less helpful tendencies of the article. For the gospel message presents us a Jesus whose care for the needy — which took him to the cross — doesn’t only give us an example to follow but lays the unique and unrepeatable foundation upon which we can care for people.

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