5 Finding your own voice

Learning compassionate creativity within boundaries

When I started my training as a chaplain, I struggled with who I should be.

When the training process started, I followed one person for several shifts. He explained many parts of the process of being a chaplain. I watched him in conversations with patients and staff. I took notes on the ways that he took notes. I used him as the “standard of chaplaincy.”

Until I followed another chaplain for several shifts.  She did several things differently.  She didn’t contradict my trainer, but she put the accent on different words. Her life experience gave her different ways of understanding the vocabulary of healthcare. Her commitment to the practice of chaplaincy led her to explore different areas.

And she gave me a simple piece of advice: “Watch what the rest of us do, but find your own voice.”

I realized that there are several constraints as we are discovering our own voice as chaplains.[1]

There are legal requirements. We are bound by privacy laws to not share information with anyone who asks, no matter how much they may beg.[2] We are bound to not interfere with police investigations of crimes that may include people in our facility. We are bound by laws about witnessing documents, about informing patients of their rights in specific situations. And we can be called into court in relation to our work.

There are organizational requirements We do our work within a facility or a group of facilities. We are bound by policies for training, for crises, for communication, for documentation. There are hierarchies that constrain our interactions. And these put boundaries around things we’d love to say.

There are departmental requirements. We are part of chaplaincy or patient care or volunteer services. And within our departments, we write standard operating procedures which govern what we can and cannot do. They become scripts which tell us what we can and cannot say. Because chaplaincy is often considered a marginally necessary part of some healthcare facilities, those requirements may seem defensive or arbitrary or even unspiritual. But they have formed across time within the organizational and legal requirements and define what it means to be a chaplain at Municipal Memorial Hospital.[3]

There are best practices that come from the generally understood role of chaplaincy, that come from our particular faith tradition, that come from our community. There are cultural norms in our departments that are not part of the rules but define the kinds of interactions and vocabulary and actions.

And then there is you. And me. We have our own experiences and values and personality that shape our interactions.

I could have started with us, but I’m not sure that’s healthy. The rest of the constraints matter. They provide the boundaries and practices that make this into the role called “hospital chaplaincy” and not the role called “social worker” or “barista” or “creative artist”. As valuable as each of those other roles may be, they aren’t what we are called to do and be.

However, at some point in our work, we begin to discover how a chaplain that looks like us can work and speak. What are the stories that we bring to patients from our own experiences? How does your strength as an extrovert allow you to engage with people that I, as an introvert, would struggle with? And how does my strength as an introvert allow me to approach people with a quietness that some people need? After we learn the boundaries and norms, how can we breathe our life into them?

The process takes time. Not everyone is built for chaplaincy, whether paid or voluntary. Some people are never comfortable in a hospital. But when we learn the constraints well enough to be creative within them rather than in spite of them, we can begin to speak to patients, families, and coworkers with our unique voice that harmonizes well. For their sake.


  1. These constraints probably apply to discovering our voices in many areas, particularly professions.
  2. HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability Act of 1996 talks about individually identifiable healthcare information. Many people have a sense of frustration with the way hospitals have to protect information. However, imagine that you've had a diagnosis that could shape how people at a church or in your family or in your place of employment would think about you. That's why it matters.
  3. Or whatever the name of your hospital is.

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Before You Walk In Copyright © 2018 by Jon Charles Swanson. All Rights Reserved.

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