The Ministry of Presence


On Monday afternoons, I go to the local hospital to be a volunteer chaplain for the afternoon.

I hate going.

Every Monday, there is a bit of dread that hits my stomach as I step into my professional clothes, clip on my official badge and drive to park in my official spot.  With my hands still on the steering wheel, I pray the prayer a mentor taught me when I was doing Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital in Boston: “Lord, help me not to run.”

I enter the hospital through the main doors and greet the volunteers at the front desk.  I bypass the public elevators and head for the staff elevators.  Turning the corner from the second floor desk, I enter the chapel.  Usually it is quiet and empty.  Occasionally there are staff members on their phones that I have to politely remind that it is a chapel, not their lounge.  I log on to the system, check the main census, and attempt to memorize the names of the ICU patients.  I check the census by religion which is never complete.  While some staff members are great at intake in asking spiritual preference, when they are in a hurry it’s often the first question that is skipped.  Usually I only know the spiritual preference of about half of the ICU folks.

I log off.  I sit in a pew and stare at the stained-glass window.  I take a deep breath.  I pray again.  “Lord, use me, however you need me.”  Sometimes I have been known to pray “Lord, please don’t let me be needed today.”

Then I walk out that door, around the corner and down the hall to ICU.

And somehow, miraculously, every time I pass through those doors, the switch is turned on.

I’m the Chaplain.  I’m here for you.  Whether you be a patient, a visitor, a nurse or therapist or business representative or doctor or housekeeping or internal services, I am here for you to be your chaplain.

At that point, I forget that I ever wanted to run or wanted to not be needed.  I’m actually disappointed if everyone is asleep or being bathed or whatever.  I’m ready.

I visit the sick and the elderly, the dying, the post-suicidal, the recovering addict, the mother or daughter, the brother or ex-husband.  I go in, introduce myself, invite them to introduce themselves.  If the environment of the conversation is open, I pull up a chair.  I sit and listen, and sometimes pray.  Sometimes it’s just a minute.  At times it has been an hour.

I don’t have a lot of time to give.  Unlike the other volunteer chaplains at our hospital, I rarely take the emergency calls because I am the one primarily home with our child.  I rarely hit the main floors, but I always make a point to go to the ICU, the ER, and the Women’s Center.  While the other chaplains may get to the floors, I try to get to the new mothers, mothers-to-be, and those who have been mothers for all too short a time.  Most of the time, it is a temporary crisis.  A baby was born too soon and had to be flown to a larger hospital, but mother was not discharged yet.  It is so very hard to be separated from your baby like that.  But it will be well.  In the meantime, in that limbo between birth and being reunited, I offer prayer, comfort, and an ear to listen.  More importantly, I offer myself, to be there, for the father and/or other family members may have gone on to be with the new baby.

At times the news is not as good.  A child has been lost in miscarriage or stillbirth.  A child has been born with a birth defect that the child will live the rest of their life with.  I offer prayer, an ear to listen, and space for grief.  At times I contact the patient’s minister with their permission for continued support after they leave.

I don’t get to see everyone.  I probably don’t even see a quarter of the people on Monday alone who are in the hospital.  Some days I wonder if it’s even worth my time.  Then there will be that nurse in the elevator who says, “I’m so glad you’re here, I need to talk to someone.”  Or the doctor in ER who, in between running to patients says, “Pray for all of us here, we need it today.”  Or the worker whose daughter is dying of cancer and she is in the chapel, weeping, where her coworkers can’t find her.

In the midst of the chaos, in the midst of insurance paperwork and cost-efficiency and healing and treatments and general life of the hospital, I am there, even if for an hour on Mondays.  But more importantly, the presence of God is made known to people.  There are wonderful nurses who have called me in to pray with patients.  There are doctors who have listened to the spiritual concerns of their patients.  God is already known, but yet, when I and the other chaplains are there, we are there for everyone.  We are there for you.  We aren’t going to stick you with a needle or make you do physical therapy.  We are simply there to represent the presence of God, which has been there all along.

And I realize that my fears when I arrived were my own; but when that “switch” turned on, it was no longer me, but God in me, God with me, God through me.

And when I leave, this is my prayer:

“Thank you, God, for today, and for having me be here.”

I love being there.

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This entry was posted in Christianity, ministry, spirituality and tagged , , , by Rev. Mindi. Bookmark the permalink.

About Rev. Mindi

Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is an ordained American Baptist minister married to an ordained Disciples of Christ minister and mother of a child with autism. Mindi grew up in Alaska, lived in Oregon, Massachusetts and Oklahoma, and now lives in the Seattle area. She is a pastor, creator of Rev-o-lution (http://rev-o-lution.org), retreat leader and writer, and a citizen of Red Sox Nation. (Note that her posts are her personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of her congregation).

8 thoughts on “The Ministry of Presence

  1. Rev. Mindi, thanks for such a lovely reminder of our greatest ministry. That of just being there, being the love of Jesus. I remember I was an intern with the Native American Ministry of Presence, in Denver Colorado when I was a first year seminarian. I learned so much about just being there. It was so hard to just sit with a silent patient or entire silent family, but I learned not to fill the silences with my ideas of what needed to be said. I was just present, in the moment, in the breath. Sometimes the families talked, sometimes not. But as I left, all of them (or at least one representative of the family) would thank me profusely for sitting and if we talked, talking with them. That was such a lesson for me. And now, as I sit crying at the death of the Aunt who raised me, I remember those lessons. I remember my chosen family who have all sent emails of love and support. I feel their presence in the silence and am reminded that as I begin a new church position, even if it is called “Volunteer Coordinator”, there will be a ministry of presence as well.

    Your story was bittersweet. Your ministry was invaluable….is invaluable. Thank you.

  2. Mindi – I read your post this morning on my phone as I traveled on the 6:07a.m. (yes a.m.) bus towards my CPE residency at the VA here in Portland. Much of what you said resonated with me both in my current position and as a past volunteer chaplain at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, WV. At OV, we had to walk into rooms cold – without a clue as to who the person was or why they were there except for a 3 x 5 card with their name, address, and age.

    My prayer in the parking lot used to be a bit different, reflecting my own FOOI stuff: “Lord, don’t let me say anything stupid.” or “Lord, remind me to keep my mouth shut as much as possible.” But keeping one’s feet grounded in the room, at the nurses’ station, or even getting them to get out of the car can sometimes be the most difficult task.

    I share with you (and all) this poem I wrote while during my first CPE residency in Albany, NY where I was the pediatric chaplain (2003-2004).

    Catch My Tears

    Catch my tears, O Lord.
    tears of anger
    helplessness
    grief

    I wander from room to room
    offering myself in your name
    to the suffering families.

    WIth such audacity do I claim to do your work,
    costumed with a cross, bible and name badge.

    The injured, sick and weeping
    cling to me as if touching
    my garment is touching yours.

    And I feel a fraud a charlatan.
    their problems are overwhelming, immense –

    Catch my tears, O Lord
    as I cry for abused and broken babies
    and their pained and broken parents;
    as I cry for dying children whose
    bodies ache to be freed of this earth;
    as I cry for tired nurses and doctors
    who realize that their gifts may not be enough.

    It may be
    that our frantic ministrations,
    and our desperate tears
    are what you need for a balm of healing.

    Catch my tears, O, Lord
    and my feeble words.
    Transform them into healing ointment.

  3. Mindi, this brought me to tears. I often find myself avoiding hospitals or other difficult situations because I have that same sense of wanting to run. Only unlike you I do run…I chicken out. Or I never get close to going in the first place even though I know I should. And on some level I want to. I’m just afraid. Your courage and grace inspire me, and I’m going to make it a point to flip the switch in myself and go be there for others. I may not have the presence of God with me the way you do, but if I can at least bring a little comfort to people it will be worth it.

  4. Thank you all for your kind words. Megan, you do have the presence of God with you, exactly like I do–all I have is some training on the practical matters but God is very present in you.

  5. Pingback: THE MINISTRY OF PRESENCE « STEVE'S DIGITAL DESK

  6. Chaplaincy is a very valuable and important ministry. Any amount of time you can put in is wonderful. Many times all you are there for is the listening ear. People need to know someone is there for them that cares. Thank you for your ministry.

  7. Pingback: Jeanne Cummings | Columbus Home Search

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