By Norris Burkes Feb 25 2023

Folks occasionally ask me how they too might become a hospital chaplain.

Some seem to hope I’ll say they need only attend five Monday nights of training in a local church, and they can start making the big bucks.

The five-week program works for many volunteer positions, but for a chaplain career, college and graduate school is required. “But wait, there’s more,” I tell them.

Before they can bring home a chaplain paycheck, they must be accepted into something called Clinical Pastoral Education. CPE is a one-year internship program at a teaching hospital where wanna-be chaplains work forty-hour weeks.

I began CPE in the fall of 1990 at the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. The training involved multiple chaplain requests from the emergency room to visit with the victims of violence, accidents, and illnesses.

Many of the calls related to something medical folk called “risk-related behaviors.” The most common high-risk behaviors include violence, alcoholism, tobacco use disorder, risky sexual behaviors and eating disorders.

While some patients avoided return visits by making lifestyle changes, others made numerous returns. Such patients were often called “Frequent Fliers.”

One of our “Fliers” arrived one hot summer afternoon strapped to a gurney and screaming “Oh, God, it hurts! You gotta get me something for the pain.”

Orderlies wheeled the woman into a treatment room where a nurse peppered her with triage questions. Just outside the room, a few staff members erupted into full-blown guffaws and horselaughs.

“Hey,” I called to a particularly tall, balding nurse, “Why are you guys laughing at that lady? That isn’t cool. I think she heard you.”

The nurse laughed some more, taking my upbraiding in better stride than I’d expected.

“Were you here last week?” he asked.

“No. I was on vacation.”

“Then you wouldn’t understand,” he said, shaking his head at his “uniformed” chaplain.

“This lady was here last week with such convincing pain that we put her on an intravenous morphine drip,” he said.

“Still not funny,” I said.

He continued his account by telling me how the woman had excused herself for a brief smoke and failed to return to the ER.

“Campus police found her hitchhiking in her hospital gown on the boulevard out front. She had an IV needle in one arm while holding the morphine bag with the other,” he said.

“Why would she …?” My puzzled voice faded to barely audible from inside my naive cocoon.

“She wanted to sell our morphine, Chaplain,” he said, reversing the upbraid.

I studied the mop-streaked floor between his feet as I felt the currents of emotions swirling about us.

I had to admit that I saw the humor in the case but laughing at the woman’s condition felt like a sellout to the gallows humor emergency-room workers often used to insulate themselves.

Jesus once encountered a woman with real pain, unlike our patient. She had an incurable blood disorder that drained her of energy, money and dignity. Her search for a physician’s cure only made her situation worse. By the time she came seeking Jesus, she was looking only for a human touch, a caring touch.

I learned a lot that year, but this event, more than most, taught me that while not every patient sought healing, Jesus demonstrated that everyone deserves a caring touch.

As I approached the hospital gurney and offered our patient a prayer, I did my best to also bring her the human touch she deserved. A few minutes later, a caring doctor referred our patient quality psychiatric care in a rehab facility.

Unfortunately, not everyone will accept a caring touch. This time, she laughed at us.

A few moments later, she left our ER against medical advice, without drugs or a hospital gown — only a prayerful touch from her hospital chaplain.


You can read more about the professional chaplain career in my book, “Tell It To the Chaplain.” Buy any of my books online at or send $20 to 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602. Comments received at same address or by email: or at (843) 608-9715.