The Unproductive Chaplain


welcome to the machine

welcome to the machine

I wrote previously how chaplains need to be productive, and how to do that. I now want to unravel all that. Productivity may be how we prove our worth to our employers, however it can also run counter to how we do that, and even to our ability to do that.

As I previously wrote, it is often very hard to quantify what we do as chaplains. You can see physical wounds heal and measure them directly. You can’t do that with emotional or spiritual wounds. Therefore chaplains have to rely more on numbers like number of patients seen and time spent with them to show their value. Yes some hospitals and assessments do have tools that try to measure the effectiveness of spiritual support, but as far as I know those are hardly across the board. Those tools, though very helpful, seem limited to research environments.

The focus on the bare essentials (visits and time) as indicators of productivity by our supervisors can skew our focus as well, consciously or unconsciously.  As a result, the need to be productive can be at odds with the need to be effective.

Just as there are points to be made about how to be productive in chaplaincy, there are pitfalls involved as well.

1: Changing goals and focus: When numbers become the lens through which others view your job, those numbers can take over our own vision for care. It’s surprising how quickly one can go from “I need to spend more time with this person” to “I need to find a way to leave because I still have to get three more people seen” or “have I been here long enough?”. This change can cripple a chaplain’s effectiveness, taking them out of the moment.

2: Comparison and dissatisfaction: At one point in my career my manager put out a chart of everyone’s productivity – how many patients they had seen, phone calls made, and so on. The names were hidden for anonymity. But there were only two of us chaplains, so you might as well have put our numbers up on the billboard outside. This led to comparison, dissatisfaction and embarrassment between myself and my colleague. It didn’t damage our relationship, but it made us both very conscious about what we were doing compared to what the other was doing.

3: Devaluation and limitation: When our productivity becomes a primary driver of our work, I think we tend to value our work less. Even if we had a great visit during the week and did a lot of good, a perception of low productivity can overshadow those accomplishments. When this happens, we limit ourselves even more as those “great visits” may not feel so great when others don’t see their value as we do.

4: Self care suffers: Self care is hard enough for many of us, but when numbers are pushed it can suffer even more. Those things that we see as necessary to our day and job performance (quiet time, study, education, even lunch breaks) can be quickly pushed to the side if others see that as “unproductive time”.

5: The downward spiral: The cumulative effect of being totally focused on productivity ultimately leaves one a productive shell. External signifiers of effectiveness and capability overshadow the internal. Creativity is squashed. Control and value are externalized and decontextualized. Overall satisfaction wanes. Eventually one either finds a way out of the spiral, or stays in it long enough to burn out or quit.

Productivity is important, but it can’t rule our lives. One has to find a healthy balance between being productive and appeasing our employers, and being effective in what we do. Productivity and effectiveness don’t have to run counter to each other of course, but it is a balancing act. Finding that balance is always an ongoing process.

More on that balance later, hopefully!

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