As I begin this 12-month journey, as a chaplain in residency, I think about the first time “chaplain” entered my conscience. Of course, I had heard the word and even knew someone who was a chaplain, but I had never given the vocation a thought. In seminary we had an option to do an internship – either as a pastor in a church setting or as a chaplain in a hospital setting. Immediately I discounted the chaplaincy – in my mind I was never going to be a chaplain, I did not want to work in a hospital or military setting, and besides, weren’t chaplains people who could not make it as a pastor? Yep, I really thought that thought. Let the humbling begin…
People around me, people close to me, like my daughter and sister, both nurses, kept nagging at me that I would be a great chaplain. Probably because they both work in health care, but I wondered, did they not think I was a good pastor? Their words haunted me. I began to wonder if I had not, at least, missed out on an experience that might make me a better pastor. The thought came in and out of my mind over the next year after graduating seminary.
While preaching at another church one Sunday in October 2019, I spent some time between services chatting with the worship leader. In addition to worship leading, she was a part-time hospice chaplain. I expressed my regret in not experiencing the chaplaincy when given the opportunity in seminary. She responded, “Suzie, you know you can still do it.” My ears heard her speak, but my spirit heard the voice of God.
A few days later a youth ministry friend, who rarely calls me, called me. He called about something else but decided to share a “God story” with me first. The God story was how he ended up in CPE – clinical pastoral education – training to be a chaplain. He later texted me to let me know a new class was beginning in January. God was impressing on my heart and I knew I need to pursue this chaplain thing; before I knew it, I was sitting in that January CPE class.
In my short time as an intern in CPE, Winter/ Spring 2020, before COVID hit and caused us to work remotely, I was completely humbled by the work of a chaplain. Being present for life’s most intimate moments with families – like the death of their newborn or a cancer diagnosis of a four-year-old, the loss of a teenager to suicide – are probably some of the most holy moments I have ever experienced.
I realized I had a lot to learn. And honestly, I didn’t want to learn it. Because it was hard and messy and would cause me to look inward and deal with my own stuff. In case you are not aware, CPE comes with a lot of self-reflection – chaplains can’t be dragging their own stuff in the room, so they must do the work to find their own healing. I tried to turn away. I return to the pastoral pursuit where at least I was comfortable and fairly competent. Have you ever had that dream where you were trying so hard to run towards (or away from) something and could not reach your intended destination? That is how my transition went from pastor to chaplain. I applied for pastoral roles – but the interviews left me dry and lifeless. I avoided my application for residency. The only reason I completed it was because I am a finisher – I could not leave it undone! When I got the call for an interview – you guessed it – the interview for residency was life-giving, easy, and felt right – dang it!
The moment I surrendered and accepted my offer of residency I felt a renewal, new passion, new excitement I have not felt in a long time. Having completed my orientation and one month in, as I walk the halls of the hospital and visit patients, I know I am right where I am supposed to be, for this season. I have no idea where God will take this but I am all in. I look forward to this next year of training, knowing it will not be easy, certain I will be humbled a time or two, but excited to embark on this adventure with God.
Where is God calling you? Might it be a place just outside your comfort zone? I got great advice as I moved through this season of transition from a spiritual director. As I considered three pastoral options in front of me at the time, she encouraged me to “try them on” and ask God to chime in as I did so. She also encouraged me not to neglect the question mark or the not yet known and bring that to God as well. Of course, in my time with God, my spirit leapt for the unknown. As you discern your next calling I challenge you to do the same – “try on” your options in front of you… and do not forget the question mark!