Parents as Lay Ministers

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One of the most horrifying things I’ve seen as a chaplain intern is a mother curled up in bed holding her dead teenage daughter. I’ve seen a half-dozen families with babies in the ER. When I come home from the hospital, the first thing I always do is hold my infant son.

So, what is a parent to do in my situation? Is it a detriment to my ministry if I see my boy in the face of every pediatric patient? Is it bad for me to sympathize with all parents, especially mothers? Do I risk putting families above all other patients in my priorities? Do I risk not being able to see clearly due to my own biases? Here are a few of my thoughts on the situation:

How to treat parents

As part of my internship, I had bi-weekly supervisory meetings with the head of the Spiritual Care Dept. Once, we reflected on my work with the family of a severely injured child. I admitted to my supervisor that as I went to meet with the family, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I thought, “What would I be thinking or feeling if I were them? What would be most helpful for me if I were them? What would be least helpful?”

I think that last question is the most important one for a parent/minister to ask. Every person and every situation is different. The parents of this patient have their own stories and backgrounds. You can’t use your worldview to judge theirs. There may be emotions felt and expressed that you may never understand. They may need something that you’d never think of. But, at the end of the day, we’re all human and while you can’t use yourself as a gauge on what to do, you can usually use yourself as a gauge for what not to do. Although there are some people who are more sensitive than others, generally speaking we’re all offended and hurt by the same kind of things.

For example: Some people are huggers, some people are not, but most people would agree that laughing while someone else is crying is extremely insensitive.

Now is not the time or the place to swap dirty diaper stories or to talk about your own children and parenting adventures. The topic at hand is the sick child and the goal is to help the parents in any way you can, period.

How does being a parent affect my priorities

Clearly, you cannot put parents first, above all of the other people vying for your time and attention. You will want to and it’s only natural to want to. As a parent/minister, you can most sympathize with the parents and you have deep concern for any and all sick children. But that doesn’t mean that you shirk your responsibilities to the rest of the hospital.

Priorities need to be set regardless of how well you can relate to the patient and family. My priorities tend to be set as follows:

1) Those who clearly need spiritual assistance come first. (i.e. those who directly request a chaplain)
2) Life threatening injuries and illnesses
3) Provocative cases (for example, suicidal patients or cases in which there is more than one patient from the same family)
4) Everybody else

Notice that my priorities say nothing about the age of the patient (although the age of the patient could be a factor in any of these) nor does it say anything about the religious affiliation or lack thereof of the patient. Most of my patients are not religiously affiliated. I think that might be a product of the overall culture.

Being able to see clearly

I have to admit that when I see a child injured or sick, I am taken back. But the trick for me is to not let that paralyze me from doing my job. For some reason, in our culture, we find it hard to believe that young people can get injured or sick. We associate youth with health. Regardless if you are a parent or not, seeing a child unconscious on a hospital bed does lead to some cognitive dissonance. When you are a parent, there is an added layer of seeing your own kid in the face of the kid who is hospitalized. It’s natural. It’s okay to see your kid in the sick kid and to have some of that parental instinct come up. Of course it’s going to happen because being a parent changes everything!

You can’t let it get in the way of your work though. You have to funnel it to give you energy to help the family, not to start crying. You don’t need to make everyone else’s job harder by being the chaplain who can’t keep their stuff together. The patients don’t need that and you’re just making yourself look unprofessional. At the end of the day, by all means, cry! You need to get it all out but, don’t do it in the moment in front of the family.

Seeing your work through the eyes of a parent can also be a blessing. Your identity as a parent gives you just one more thing in common with our Father in heaven: You know what unconditional love feels like. You know how much God loves every single person in that hospital. So, your identity gives new meaning to your work as you know part of your job as God’s representative is to reflect that love to everyone. “What am I to do?” you ask. You are to do what you think God-who-is-Love would do.

And I think that is what it all boils down to. Of course your identity as a parent is going to affect how you minister. You can’t stifle all of that nor would you want to. But you can’t let it get in the way of your job. Your job at the moment is to care for all patients and their families. But, again, being a parent kind of gives you an inside track into understanding the mind of God. As it says:

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. – Isaiah 49:15

God loves everyone more than you love your own child. Doesn’t that blow your mind?

This post was initially published on the author’s own blog.

Bethanie Ryan

Bethanie Ryan

Bethanie Ryan is a housewife, mother and writer. She recently graduated with a MA in Pastoral Studies from Aquinas Institute of Theology. Originally from Missouri, she currently calls upstate New York home. She writes for several websites including her own, True Dignity of Women.

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