That is, what makes a chaplain _different_ from a psychotherapist? We both mostly work with people by _talking_ with them and one of our main skill sets is listening (not as simple or easy as it sounds!!).
These questions are often on our minds as chaplains. One answer I heard from a colleague this week was that the difference is that a chaplain also acts as a representative of God while offering support to the patient (or family).
This raised an interesting question, however – does the person have to know the chaplain is a chaplain from the beginning of the encounter for this to be in effect? This is a very live question for us here at my hospital as we often work with families coming into our Emergency Department _without_ identifying ourselves as chaplains. Often, only after we work with them for a while do family members find out we are chaplains (we don’t identify ourselves as chaplains right away because we don’t want to unnecessarily frighten them; they might think a chaplain was called only because their loved one was dying).
I had another idea, today, about what makes the distinction. I was at an excellent lecture today on Theological Reflection. The teacher listed on the board the “Big Questions” that people might ask themselves. We listed things like: What is death? Where do I go after I die? Why does there have to be suffering? Why is God letting it hurt? What is the place of Evil in the world? Can we trust God? Does God exist? What is the meaning of my life?
While these questions might come up in a psychotherapy session, I think they are only rarely the focus of the discussion. For us chaplains, however, talking with people about these kind of _ultimate_ questions is the bread and butter of what we do.
You’ll notice that some of above questions have “God” in them, but certainly not all. You can have “Big Questions” about life and the universe and existence without any belief in God.
It strikes me then that we sometimes _overuse_ the word “Theological”. Why do we call it Theological Reflection when we look for questions of ultimate meaning in experiences we have with patients and others? The “Theo” part of the word means “God”. But God doesn’t have to be part of the conversation that comes from a Theological Reflection. Shouldn’t we call it something else then? Spiritual Reflection?
Today’s lecture was only the first of five on the topic of Theological Reflection so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to continue to reflect on these questions in the coming days and months.