Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jews, chaplains and Clinical Pastoral Education -- why we need each other

People often come up to veteran chaplain John DeVelder and tell him that he doesn't know "how much good" he does. But DeVelder thinks that's not good enough for a professional chaplain to know he or she is doing a good job. "I never know how much harm I do unless I have clinical training," he told a group of rabbis and chaplains who gathered today for a Yom Iyun -- a day of learning -- under the auspices of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

DeVelder -- one of a handful of Protestant ministers who, as chaplaincy education/supervisors, have played a prominent role in introducing professional chaplaincy training to Jews --- is a passionate advocate for professional chaplaincy training, especially in a multicultural and multifaith age. Chaplains -- who in many cases may be the sole spiritual caregiver in a facility -- are being called on to minister to people outside their own faith, and therefore need the professional training to be able to offer "generic" spiritual care that does not involve imposing their own beliefs on vulnerable people, intentionally or unintentionally. But DeVelder says that does not mean the caregiver must leave his or her faith behind. "I bring my religiosity with me, but my practice," he said, "might be called a generic spirituality."

The push towards professionalism and inclusivity is undoubtedly a good thing, said DeVelder, but he also believes it is important to be aware it comes at a cost. "What seems to be lost [in adopting the language of spirituality] is the flesh and blood work of the chaplain . . . what might be described as particularity," including prayer.

I was thrilled to have a chance to hear DeVelder in this setting as I -- along with so many Jewish chaplains -- are struggling with these very same issues. I have been witness in my life to the unethical and harmful acts of untrained (although often well-intentioned and caring) educators and caregivers, and I have devoted myself to becoming a Clinical Pastoral Education professional largely to be a part of working against that. But I also know professionalism is not enough. There has to be genuine heart and caring, too. And I can't get there without my Jewish faith -- my own way of relating to the Blessed Holy One and the holy mission to care for each other that the Blessed One has commanded us with and shown us the way to with Torah. My journey is to find a way of walking the line that preserves that link with my faith tradition and faith community while leaving me also open to intimate encounters with my patients and my students.

The Jewish speakers at the conference who spoke after DeVelder shared some of their own journeys on this kind of challenging path. Rabbi Gary Lavit, director of pastoral care at the Hebrew Home and Hospital in West Hartford, CT, spoke passionately about how he uses spontaneous prayer in his work. And Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski -- author of the very best volume on traditional Jewish textual sources for pastoral care, To walk in God's ways -- and Rabbi Charles Sheer, director of Jewish studies at the Healthcare Chaplaincy -- both talked about how traditional Jewish legal sources relate to crucial end-of-life questions. Both rabbis were seeking paths that allow compassionate end-of-life decision-making that is in accord with the challenges of Jewish law.

Along with DeVelder, I believe that we cannot have an effective practice of pastoral care that does not involve our having engaged in an intensive examination of how our own beliefs and values affect how we minister to others -- including how we might unintentionally do them harm by not striving to come to an understanding of their needs and desires. That's what the clinical training that is called Clinical Pastoral Education is all about. But we also should not become so "generic" that we lose who we are as Jews, especially the ability to use the tools of our own spiritual care and textual traditions -- the great stories of our tradition! -- when the time comes.

Ozarowski, for example, reminded us of the power of the final chapters of the book of בראשית/brereishit (Genesis) as Jacob approaches his death and offers blessings and charges to his sons -- including instructions for his burial many miles away from the place of his dying. Read these words from the perspective of a person facing the end of his life, Ozarowski urged us. It's a powerful lesson, he said.

I agree!

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