Therapy and Chaplaincy

One of my favorite things about God is that we (humans) are created in the image of God, three in one – body (physical), mind (thoughts, will, emotions), spirit (the life breath of the body, the essence of who we are, and how we interact with God). There is a lot of emphasis on the importance of taking care of our physical body to stay healthy, active, and alive. But without our emotional and spiritual health, we will not find complete healing or wholeness.

People who enter the hospital are in the midst of a physical health crisis – which is often pared with an emotional and/or spiritual health crisis. The medical team takes care of the patient’s physical wellbeing. As a chaplain and part of the interdisciplinary team, I support patients emotionally or spiritually, whatever that looks like for them.

Each resident chaplain brings some understanding of the spiritual needs of patients, it is part of our background training prior to entering the program. Our resident training includes a unit on the behavioral sciences to help us as chaplains better understand, and meet, the emotional needs of our patients. Learning about it is one thing but incorporating it into our ministry as chaplains is the real goal.

To conclude our second unit we were to choose a therapy model that best fits our personal style and then write a paper about how it informs our chaplain ministry. I cut to the chase and asked a therapist (thanks Tianna!) at Sean’s House, who knows me well, what therapy model she thought would best fit my personality. She thoughtfully replied, “Knowing you, Carl Roger’s person-centered therapy would be a good fit for you.”

The first thing that resonates with me about person-centered therapy is the focus on a patient’s journey to self-awareness and becoming the best version of themselves. The way there also feels right for me. The therapist is intentional about building a relationship of mutual respect with the client and allows the client to take the lead in the session. The client-therapist relationship is then built on genuineness, acceptance, and empathy.

My new understanding and incorporation of person-centered therapy into my chaplaincy has been beneficial to me as a chaplain because it fits who I am as a person. I have a desire to meet people where they are and be authentic and transparent, listening and responding with empathy and without judgement.

Person-centered therapy is also in line with my theology. We are perfectly created by God. Born into a world that is fallen and broken, our true self becomes distorted by the sin and struggle of the world. The way back to our true self is becoming aware of the places in us that have been altered by the world. As we find healing, we begin to discover who we were originally created to be, or our true self. 

In my chaplain ministry I have found patients will find the freedom to share their feelings and experiences when they sense genuineness, acceptance, and empathy from their chaplain.

One example is a patient I will call “Roxy.” She was battling a life-long addiction and living a life of prostitution to support her addiction. This put her is a cycle that was hard to break, though she had a deep desire to get clean and a plan to make use of all the wasted years. Her dream was to write a book about her life to encourage others.

Frustrated because the way forward was fraught with challenges, she poured out her heart and her struggle. Listening with empathy, I was able to accept her where she was and reverently acknowledge her struggle. And maybe for the first time, she felt heard, validated, and encouraged to continue on towards her goal. I am finding it is true that people really just need to be known and acknowledged. Roxy’s book is sure to be a best seller.

By far my favorite part of this therapy model is the inclusion of the therapist. Carl Rogers emphasizes the genuineness of the therapist. As a chaplain, to be genuine means using my natural gifts and being fully myself; it also means continually working on my broken places that are exposed through this work.

I feel like I am just now realizing what that looks like. As I continue on this journey through residency, I am regularly challenged to dig deeper and explore my feelings, exposing deeper issues that need my acknowledgement, forgiveness, and release. I am finding to be genuine is to gain new freedom for myself. I have a new understanding of myself… and acceptance for all those broken places in me that are begging for acknowledgement and a little empathy.

This is where the real work begins. This is where the real healing happens. I need to be in touch with my own feelings, so my patients can be in touch with theirs. I need to accept myself so my patients can accept themselves. I need to find empathy for myself, so my patients can receive it from me, and find it for themselves as well.

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