When people ask me what the most important lesson I’ve learned from hospital chaplaincy, I say, “Don’t assume.”

The advice encompasses all walks of life, but in the hospital, there are three specific things I try not to assume: relationships, my own ability to comfort, and personal beliefs.

First, I’ve discovered that it’s best not to assume relationships. That’s why I will always ask the person who is standing bedside how they know our patient.

Most of the time, one person will chuckle at my question and say, “This is the man or (woman) I married 20 years ago.” Nevertheless, I always ask because sometimes I get the same answer from two people of the same sex.

Of course, I still learn more through my failures than from any other method.

I’ll never forget the day I visited a petite patient who had been artificially aged by her illness. When I asked the bedside man about his mother, he shot his answer between my eyes. “THIS, is my wife!”

Secondly, I try not to assume my ability to comfort. A few years back, I was working as a pediatric chaplain when I assumed that my Scooby-Doo necktie might bring happiness.

At first, the staff and patients expressed compliments and chuckles. However, when I sat with a couple in the midst of making their child’s funeral plans, the mother looked up from her notes and noted with a matter-of-fact tone, “Oh, a Scooby-Doo tie?”

“Yes,” I said, expressing a gentle smile. “I wore it today thinking that it might…”

She interrupted my assumption with stream of hysterical tears, “He loved Scooby-Doo! He loved Scooby-Doo!”

Suddenly, the necktie cease to comfort and I wanted to rip it off my neck.

Finally, I don’t assume beliefs. It’s easy to assume that someone who uses your “religious” terms will be your type of “religious.” Fortunately, as in this last example, I’m sometimes the teacher and not the one getting “schooled.”

It began in the form of a phone message passed to me by my colleague, Susan. As I read her note, she added a verbal footnote.

“Tell your caller that I’m not THE secretary.”

When I returned the call, it took only a moment for me to realize why Susan had put such a chill in her voice.
The caller was a Southern Baptist deacon who asked me if I could substitute preach for his pastor on the following Sunday. When I explained that I had family obligations that weekend, he thanked me for considering it.

Then he added, “Tell your secretary ‘thank you’ for getting the message to you so quickly.”

“Uh, she’s not my secretary, she’s a chaplain.” I explained.

“Oh, I didn’t know women could be chaplains,” he said.

I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes with Susan who I knew would love to be listening on the extension.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m aware that Southern Baptist don’t ordain women, but many churches do.”

There was a silence, the only sound being the scratching of his very thick skull.

“Susan is a Presbyterian and Presbyterians ordain women for chaplaincy,” I added.

“Oh, sure I guess so,” he said. “I’m sorry, I just assumed…. But she works for you, right?” Bless his heart; he kept trying.

“No, I said, adding my own ice, “She’s my colleague.”

His voice trailed off in stutters and finally became silent.

Silence is the other lesson I’ve learned, but I’ll be quiet about that until my next column.