Effective Swearing for Chaplains (and Other Clergy Too!)

***trigger alert: as this is a post about colorful language, be aware that there is colorful language abounding after the jump***

Clergy, sometimes it’s OK to use swear words. That’s the summary. For the full text click below, but language aboundeth herein

My CPE Supervisor: “Sam?”

Me: “Yes?”

Supervisor: “You don’t say fuck much do you?”

Such was my introduction to effective swearing for clergy. And to answer the obvious question no I did not say fuck much. I do more now though. I also say hell, dammit and shit.

Language was a huge deal for me growing up. There was no cursing in the house. You’d hear “darn”, “shoot” and even some made-up swear words. It was important to not be “like the world”, which cusses and swears. Holy, God-fearing people who take the command to “not let an unclean word come out of your mouth” seriously don’t swear.

Fast forward 30 years and I’m a hospice chaplain and seminary graduate who isn’t afraid to let one fly on occasion. Through that one question I saw that what I thought was holiness was really just repression. I hid my anger as well as I hid my language. I saw I needed to be real with others and myself.

While I still keep things pretty clean at home in front of the kids, I’ve found that some appropriate swearing can actually be very helpful for folks who are going through difficult times.

Here’s a recent example. Two weeks ago I was visiting a couple at their home. The husband, my patient, had a pretty scary and sudden decline. Overnight he went from being his usual self to falling, slurring his speech, and not able to get his words out. His wife was very worried he’d had a stroke. I provided a lot of support to her while the nurse tended to him. After putting his oxygen on he started to recover and both were visibly relieved. I took the wife aside to talk privately for a bit. She expressed feeling disappointed in herself because she thought she had been prepared for him to eventually pass and felt that she panicked unnecessarily. I told her that it’s easy to feel ready when things are fine, but then “the shit hits the fan.” In an instant her anxiety dropped and her face lost so much of the tension she held. She laughed and said, “I’m so glad you said that.” She looked as if a tremendous burden had just been thrown to the floor. She later told me that that was what she wanted to say, but was afraid to. The fact that I said it for her helped her feel accepted and allowed her to be honest with me and herself.

I’ve found that swearing can help in situations like this one. It can help others feel accepted, warts and all, and that it’s OK to be open and honest even when that honesty involves some bad words. It can also help others see me not as someone above them or better than them due to my title, but as someone like them. Believe it or not, researchers have found real benefits to swearing, such as increased pain relief, increased feelings of control and power (helpful when people feel powerless), decreased anxiety and increased feelings of common connection. These benefits though are best seen when cursing is minimal and not done in anger.

If you think based on what I’ve written so far that most of my patient interactions are R-rated let me assure you that they are not. I curse very rarely, and only when I feel that it will help the person get past stifled emotions, feel understood, or in some other way help them cope with a situation.

So swear, but do so wisely and humbly.

  1. Don’t swear if you honestly think it will hurt someone’s faith: If your language will hurt someone’s view of Christ, clergy or God, don’t. It’s biblical.
  2. Don’t swear just to be funny or vulgar: Swearing to be crude is never helpful or good for anyone. It can easily backfire on you and it’s a quick path to getting fired.
  3. Don’t use your language to demean someone else: Never ever use language to refer to someone else, even if someone else does.
  4. Don’t use language you aren’t comfortable using: If you aren’t comfortable swearing, think it’s sinful or a bad witness then don’t. You’ll be going against your conscience and it will show. Rather than trying to be honest, you’ll be trying to be something that you aren’t.
  5. Don’t escalate someone else’s anger by swearing: Swearing by its very nature can escalate someone’s anger in the wrong situation. In this case maintaining a level head and avoiding swearing can help to de-escalate a heated moment.
  6. Don’t be the first to swear: I always take my cues from my patients and their families. If they are comfortable letting some choice words fly in front of me, I feel more comfortable doing so in front of them. But never be the first – you might misjudge their acceptance of you and your words and shut a door rather than opening it.
  7. Don’t be unprofessional: Dropping the occasional curse word with your Vietnam vet patient you’re seeing is one thing, but doing so in front of the DON at a facility is completely another. Always be professional, especially when you’re visiting another facility. To them, you represent your company as well as Christ. Your language can cost your company an account and you a job.
  8. Don’t overdo it: Cursing is best done rarely, if at all. Swearing just to swear is rarely helpful and often annoying, even to people that are comfortable with swearing.



2 thoughts on “Effective Swearing for Chaplains (and Other Clergy Too!)

  1. Thank you for sharing this. My husband and I discussed this earlier this week. I realized how much stress left me when I let out a loud F*** upon finding my car battery dead while I was headed to a doctor appointment due to sickness and had a big day ahead of me. I was able to move past the anger and frustration and move proactively to deal with the situation without the pent up emotions brewing in the background. I actually had a good sense of humor as the day went on!
    It’s so fun when God sends a confirmation like this right when you needs it, along with some healthy guidelines. Again, Thank you!

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