Chaplaincy: A Ministry of Presence
By Tom Nuckels, Director of Spiritual Care, Lifeline Chaplaincy Central Texas
“Listening carefully and responding accurately to the story of another is a true ministry. To be understood and accepted by another person is a treasured dimension of human living. It is also the first movement of any kind of care.” Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson & Edward Foley, p.45.
I suppose one of the most important lessons I have learned over the last fifteen years of hospital ministry is that of the ministry of presence. I confess that this singular aspect of the care of souls was, initially, a difficult concept for me. I came on board with Lifeline Chaplaincy following thirty years of preaching ministry. Although I saw my ministry within the church setting as highly pastoral, there was that personal need to “do something religious” when I entered a hospital room. I do not think I am alone in this. Most preachers, elders, and other church leaders that I know, when being trained as a chaplain or volunteer, have to overcome their own personal need and agenda to preach, read scripture, or pray before they leave the hospital room. Although these are all good things to “do,” they are not always conducive to a hospital visit. The patient may be comatose, sedated, or may have a myriad of other conditions which are not always favorable for the performance of religious acts that I might have on my agenda as a visitor. Please do not misunderstand me here. I believe all of those things mentioned are important to do when the time and occasion is right for the patient. I also believe that prayer and the reading of Scripture create an atmosphere that helps a patient make vital connections with the Divine and reminds them of God’s love and compassion toward them. However, I have learned to not have an agenda to “do” anything, but to “be” present with a patient when I am at their bedside. So, the ministry of presence is more about “being” than “doing.” It’s about being available to others and coming alongside of them in the midst of their suffering, loss, or pain. It’s about asking productive questions, reflecting back to them in order that they might hear their story in the words of another, and somehow begin to make sense of their plight, and how their story relates to their present experience and how God fits into that story.
Recently, I visited at the bedside of the wife of a church leader whom I had known for a number of years. She had suffered with a number of debilitating illnesses, including cancer and diabetes. This would be the last time I would see her alive. As I entered the room, her grown children were there, a grand-daughter was seated making phone calls, and the patient’s husband was seated next to the bed, holding her hand. I now know that the patient was actively dying, as she was in a comatose state, kidney and respiratory functions were rapidly failing as well. I recall not knowing what to say, but remember hugging the family, then pulled up a chair next to my friend. I remember listening to him talk about the sixty plus years of marriage they had together and stories of raising children as well as grandchildren. I remember having my arm around his shoulders while he talked. As other friends and family entered to say their goodbyes, I remember standing over to the side for a couple of hours. When I did finally leave, I remember my friend saying something like, “thanks for being here.” So, even though prayers were said, and some words from Scripture were read, what he thanked me for was being there; being present. And in the final analysis, isn’t that what we want from a friend? We really don’t want to be told how “everything will be okay” when in that moment it’s not. Nor do we appreciate unsolicited advice. What we need is someone to be present and attentive to our needs, to listen, really listen to our stories, our concerns, without fixing us.
I didn’t really say much that day at the bedside of my friend’s wife. I do believe I got it right that day, however. I just came alongside to be with him and his family. I believe I have learned the important role of the ministry of presence. It is enough, at times, to just “be.” It is possibly the most we can do for others in time of their pain. Anderson and Foley are right; listening is “the first movement of any kind of care.” I want to remember that. Thank you for supporting Lifeline Chaplaincy so that we can be that ministry of presence to others.
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…”—James 1:19