Why I’m a Chaplain – III: “The Church” and the wandering path

At one point in my life I had wandered away from my faith. Not wandered, more like stormed out to be honest. That’s a whole other issue. I came back though, and a big reason I came back was I attended a Christmas service at a large megachurch here in Pittsburgh that changed my perspective on myself and my relationship with God. I started attending and joined about a year later.

This church became a big part of my life. My first date with the person who I would later marry was to take her there. When I attended seminary I defended it’s model in a class devoted to ministry and evangelism, which was made up mostly of mainline Protestants who saw megachurches like Willow Creek to be some kind of aberration. I studied counseling and theology with the dream of working there as a counseling pastor. I even talked with the person there who did pastoral counseling to see what he did to prepare for his career. So you can imagine my joy at hearing that they wanted me to work there right out of seminary to head up their counseling ministries. I had hoped to be able to come back to work in my home of Pittsburgh, and to be able to work in my home church was even more of a blessing.

I took the position of course, becoming an assistant pastor – one of five. However I soon found that when I tried to act in my role I was swiftly taken down a few notches. This came as a shock to me as seminary, and especially my internship at the university Chaplain’s office, had taught me to put myself out there and not simply wait and be told what to do. I was finally comfortable with my authority, and found I wasn’t able to use it. I found that I had to know my place, which was somewhere behind the marketing director.

Things went downhill further after I was chastised for having my wife attend a volunteer dinner with our infant son, as it did not say on the invitation that children were welcome. This was shortly after we had out son dedicated there. My wife quit going there the next day.

I struggled a great deal with everything there: its mission, its values, my role, how it viewed attendees, the monarchical view of the senior pastor. The schedule was demanding, the environment toxic to anyone who didn’t fit the mold, and I found my work frustrating and even demeaning at times. Finally, after about three years, I was let go along with about ten others due to budgetary reasons (after being told a month prior about how wonderful things were). I spent the next year in a spiritual detox. I was furious and hurt, not at God this time but at this crazy institution that had failed in such a huge way. My wife for one was glad that I was out of there, however I was left wondering if I had made a huge mistake. For a while we didn’t go anywhere, but we then found a place where I felt we could be for a while just to recover and learn to be in a congregation again.

I thought back about my time volunteering at Connecticut Hospice and started looking for positions as a hospice Chaplain. As it turned out, I was able to start a position as a Chaplain the month my severance package ended.

It wasn’t long before I came across a patient who had been hurt by their church and was therefore no longer attending. I don’t remember what had happened in his life, but in sharing my story he was amazed to hear that anyone else – especially a minister – had been hurt in a similar way. He was able to be open with me about a number of things in his life and we grew to be good friends. As he declined I asked about his funeral arrangements. He said, “you’re my pastor, so you’re going to do my service.” I cried.

What I learned: How to empathize with the hurting

I will often come across folks who have been hurt by clergy. In some cases those hurts may have been blown out of proportion, however those are very few. I hear stories of folks who had pastors who don’t come in times of crisis, were hounded for money, or told they could no longer attend services due to some transgression. These folks often profess their love for God, but their pain related to the church. When I, as a clergyman, come in and not only listen to and accept their pain but share my own pain, I’ve seen it lower walls that had been built over decades.

But more importantly, I learned that sharing my own past pain was healing for them, as long as it was in the past. In a podcast I listen to, JR Briggs talked about his own failures in ministry and how so many others share that pain but are afraid to put words to it. He said that when he was able to share his scars that meant something to those he counseled who had gone through similar problems. He made an important distinction between sharing wounds and sharing scars, though: wounds haven’t healed, and wounds only continue to bleed until they have been. Wounds don’t help others heal. Scars are wounds of the past that, even though they are still present, no longer bleed or cause so much pain. Caregivers sometimes can be tempted into sharing their still bleeding wounds as an expression of empathy or sympathy, but what it tends to do is minimize the wounds of the other. If we have wounds as caregivers, we need to tend to them first before caring for others. Like the airline says, put your own mask on first before helping someone put on theirs.

 What else I learned: “You meant it for evil…”

One of my favorite biblical stories is the story of Joseph who, after being sold into slavery and left for dead, saves his family and an entire nation from starvation. It was a case of “if this horrible thing hadn’t happened, this wonderful thing couldn’t have happened.” I know that some will say that God could have worked out another way to do what He did, but He didn’t. The path God prepares is hardly ever straight, and even when it is we often wonder where it’s heading. What I learned was that I had one reason for working at that church, but God had another. I certainly helped others and grew while I was there, but my vision was narrow. I could only see one path ahead of me. To extend the air travel metaphor, I thought I had landed at my final destination. It turned out to be a layover. I think the purpose was not to plant me in a career but to bring me home and also see that what I wanted wasn’t what I needed. If I had started out in chaplaincy, I probably would have always wondered about working in that church and probably thought I was missing out. Now I think they’re missing out.



2 thoughts on “Why I’m a Chaplain – III: “The Church” and the wandering path

  1. I’ve sometimes wished I could share with local church pastors (which I have been for numerous congregations) some of the things I have learned as a chaplain from hospital patients and seniors in rehab or long term care about church: specifically how and why people “stop going” to church” or ” used to but no longer practice their ____(fill in the blank) faith.” Sometimes there has been outright harm; sometimes church volunteer burnout; often enough there is simple neglect of pastoral duty to listen, notice, be aware and care about the losses and life changes that cry out for someone– anyone– in their faith community to come alongside and be present for awhile. To do this requires some intentional organization and preparedness and, yes, self care.

    • Exactly – I’ve had folks tell me that they no longer go to their church because:
      1. the priest kept bothering them for money after their spouse’s funeral
      2. the new pastor at their church doesn’t know them and therefore doesn’t keep track of them
      3. a falling out with some member of the staff
      4. being told they aren’t allowed sacraments, or even in the church, because of a divorce
      5. feeling forgotten as church families and friends have moved, left or died
      6. clergy not showing up at a crisis event

      I think if clergy want to stop the drain from their congregations they need to look honestly at why they are leaving. Lack of attendance is not necessarily a sign of moral failure or complacency. There can be deep hurt involved. Clergy can heal that if they want to.

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