Whenever I’m asked what the difference is between a pastor and a chaplain, I often joke, “Chaplains are paid more.” But, as I discovered this month when I returned to work as a part-time hospital chaplain, the truth is more complicated.
One key difference is that a chaplain serves at the location in which they are immediately needed. So, when a 53-year-old woman arrived in our emergency trauma room with the lights and sirens of Code 3, I was there because her priest could not be.
When 30 minutes of resuscitation attempts proved to a grieving family that we’d done our best, chaplains came to bring a hint of solace to a large family that had lost a mother and a wife from an unexpected heart attack. I say only a “hint of solace,” because true solace is limited when offered by a stranger.
However, unlike pastors, I minister to everyone, no matter what his or her faith group is. As a hospital chaplain I’ve helped patients by taping healing crystals on their wrists, burning incense, reading the Bible as well as the Koran, putting a healing blanket on their bed or placing garlic under their bed. I do this because delivering quality pastoral care is about what the patient needs, not about my need to convert, baptize or proselytize.
Chaplains are involved in the decisions of life and death. For instance, this week, I sat in patient rooms with our palliative care committee. The committee is a small group consisting of a physician, nurse, chaplain, and social worker that formulate a care plan to relieve suffering. In many of these cases, patients admit that alcohol or tobacco bought about these premature conversations.
During one of those meetings, my thoughts exited the doctor’s lengthy explanation and drifted through the very same hallways I visited 20 years ago as a local pastor. The differences between what I do now and what I did as a pastor became clear.
Pastoring was very personal because I was embedded into the lives of my church members. I’ll never forget favorite parishioners like Susan Bradley who died in the hospital that now employs me. Losing her was like losing my favorite aunt.
June Ayers was another. We strolled the halls together during her cancer treatments and forged a friendship that couldn’t be dissolved.
As a pastor, I walked as far as my parishioners walked, beyond the hospital and church walls to help people like “Al” through his alcoholism. I helped reclaim the marriages of people who called me “pastor” and I brought relevance to their journeys.
I’ve never felt the love from a rank or title more than I’ve felt from “Pastor.”
Yes, pastoring is very personal. Pastor Norris can remember all these parishioners, but Chaplain Norris is having difficulty recalling the woman’s surname who died on that trauma room gurney. Maybe that’s why it’s often said that hospital chaplaincy is like pastoring a parade.
But the truth is, both sides are need. I’m glad I’ve been both because God uses everyone who will allow themselves to be used for the sake of humanity. Whether you’re a vocational religious specialist or a bank teller or corporate exec, God has a place for your caring voice.
If I learned anything at the end of the day from the pastorate or chaplaincy, I’ve learned this: give God your voice and he will find those who need to hear it.