“School did not prepare me for this.”
Despite the excellent academic education that I received at Candler – the rigorous instruction in Christian history, the intensity of my Greek classes, the thought-provoking learning of the “symbolic worlds” of the New Testament – those are the words that came to mind when I first began my journey in hospital chaplaincy.
Because, really, what can prepare you to make a hand print of a recently-deceased infant? Or explain to a five-year-old that his brother won’t be coming home with him? Or sit with a scared and exhausted mother while her child is undergoing surgery?
As a Chaplain Resident in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, I face all of these situations and more on a weekly basis. When I first felt the call towards chaplaincy, I eagerly piled my academic schedule with many pastoral care classes. I loved all of them, and have had opportunities to reference the materials I learned there. At the end of the day, though, I discovered that no amount of reading, lectures, or memorization prepared me to do the actual day-to-day work I engage in as a Chaplain in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
What it did prepare me for – critically – is how to think theologically in every situation.
During my orientation week at Candler, I remember then-professor of New Testament studies Dr. Michael Joseph Brown relating a discussion he had with a recent graduate and new pastor. She was telling him a story about how the pipes in her church’s bathroom burst, and jokingly complained about how “she didn’t learn how to repair church plumbing at Candler.” He relayed this story to us, and plainly stated, “I’m going to tell you right now, you’re not going to learn anything about church plumbing here.” He went on to tell us, however, that there is a significant difference between pastors who simply perform tasks – be they repairing plumbing or preaching – and pastors who know how to integrate everything in their world – from the stories of the saints of the faith, to an understanding of how Greek philosophy influenced the New Testament – into a way of being that can respond pastorally, theologically, and prophetically to any situation, including burst pipes in the church basement.
Dr. Brown’s words have been prophetic in my own life and work. Many of the tasks that I perform in my current role I have just had to learn by doing. The difference between the pastor I am now and the person I was when I entered seminary, however, is that I can seamlessly reflect on every experience I have, and can place it within the broader context of Christian history.
When I had to pray with and give care to a man who shook his baby to death, I thought of the discussions I had in Dr. Andrea White’s Systematic Theology class about the doctrine of sin. The learning I did there gave me the framework to even begin to make sense of such a complicated tragedy. In my reflections on this event and others like it, I would be completely undone if I didn’t have a firm grasp on what this doctrine means to me, and how people of faith throughout time have used theology in order to understand their own tragedies.
The counsel of Dr. Barbara Day Miller in my Liturgical Writing class to expand our usage of adjectives in our prayers, confronts me every time I am tempted to lazily open with “Gracious God,” at the bedside of a child in the ICU.
The pipes will burst. The copier will stop working right as the bulletins need to get printed off. The call will come for you to get to the hospital as soon as possible. The corpse of a little one will need to be washed and dressed and placed in her mother’s arms. Candler won’t give you the book you need to know how to do all this. But it will give you the tools to make sense of it all, and respond pastorally.