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New Horizons

Hospital Chaplaincy

Charles A. McIlhenny

After thirty-two years serving as an OP pastor in San Francisco, I took on a new career: hospital chaplaincy. I must have chaplaincy in my blood, if such a thing is possible. My father, who pastored several local congregations for years, also served as a chaplain. He was in the army during World War II and his experiences always intrigued me. When I left the pastorate, I immediately applied for training and certification with Healthcare Chaplains Ministry Association, an evangelical organization my father had also joined when he retired from the pastorate. I joined, studied, and was certified. That was fourteen years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. Finally, here was a world where the best of both desires could be exercised: medicine and the ministry of the Word.

The Role of the Hospital Chaplain

Historically, hospitals have Christian roots. What other calling of God suits the work of the hospital better than the pastorate—a minister of the Word in the institution of life and death? I love this ministry of mercy. I love the hospital. As part of the medical team, the chaplain is integral to the modern approach to healing as well as the death and dying experiences of patients and staff. What I learned from my education at three seminaries and one Bible school, I put into practice every day.

When I step into the waiting room—whether it’s medical-surgical, psychiatric, sub-acute, or ER—I am the pastor for everyone. Most people think chaplains pray just with patients, but in my service to six hospitals in Los Angeles County, I minister to the staff more than anyone else. Patients come in and out, “the sooner the better,” but it is the doctors, nurses, and ancillary staff members who are there 24/7. They need as much medical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual help as anybody; I am there as their pastor to counsel, pray for and with, advise, and minister to.

The ER doctor, who is a well-known unbeliever, needs me when it comes close to calling it quits on the lifeless child he couldn’t save. The obstetrics nurse needs me when a patient delivers an anencephalic child who dies three days later. The sub-acute nurse needs me because the family of a patient wants pastoral care as their vegetative-state child lies motionless in his bed. The respiratory therapist needs me because he’s getting married soon. The ICU nurse needs me when a patient dies on her shift. A wife needs me when she’s stressed over the seeming lack of care for her husband. The code blue team needs me to encourage them after they’ve worked forty-five minutes to revive a patient and have just lost the battle. The hospital needs me when a staff member dies of a drug overdose. What do they do with their shock, their grief? Who’s there to mourn her, to celebrate her life, or to give them the only message of hope? These are just some of the true-life dramas going on in my hospital every day. I’m their 24/7 pastor.

I’m also the area director for Los Angeles County, which means that I serve as a sort of district representative and, under the auspices of the executive director, oversee the everyday affairs of the chaplains and students in my area. I’m a teacher, mentor, and recruiter, with about twenty chaplains and students at various hospitals and hospices under my care. Every chaplain, including me, is responsible to raise their own funds for ministry. I worked at LA County Medical Center for a number of years, which is the largest public hospital but pays nothing to its twenty-five chaplains.

Hijacked by Interfaith Spirituality

Since 1925, modern non-ecclesiastical chaplaincy has professionalized and thus secularized the ministry of chaplaincy—and the Christian notion of chaplaincy has taken a turn toward a generic religious philosophy. No longer is chaplaincy called “pastoral” care; now it’s “spiritual” care, in the broadest terms possible. The training in chaplaincy has been hijacked by modern interfaith spirituality.

This, of course, poses many challenges for the Christian chaplain, who is directed to avoid any agenda—spiritual or pastoral—except what the patient expressly asks for. No distributing Bibles or tracts without the request of the patient. No prayers, no offering the Word of God, no leading the patient to Christ, unless initiated by the patient. The chaplain is never to “impose” his faith upon anyone—that is, never to evangelize. But this is not our calling in Christ. Rather, we have a modern-day Acts 5 challenge to “obey God … If it is of God, [man] cannot overthrow it” (vs. 29, 39 NKJV).

Healthcare chaplains are thrown all the more desperately upon the work of the Spirit, who alone opens ears and hearts. Please pray for wisdom for biblically grounded chaplains as they seek to share Christ in such challenging circumstances. Please pray that more civilian chaplains would be raised up, with the support of churches, to continue this work. And join with us in our prayer that the sovereign triune Lord would intercede to rescue Christ-centered, church-oriented chaplaincy.  

The author is an OP minister in La Mirada, California. New Horizons, February 2020.

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