Updated: Dec 17, 2021
situations that benefit from active listening
at the beginning of my chaplaincy program, my classmates and i were incredibly daunted by one particular activity: chaplaining practice. (cue scary music and fears of inadequacy!) when we do chaplaining practice, we either separate into threes (chaplain, chaplainee, witness), or *gasp* have a chaplain and chaplainee with the entire class as witness (this is called "the fishbowl"). the chaplain invites the chaplainee to share whatever is on their mind, including things they might be processing, uncertain of, tender around, etc. the chaplainee shares until they reach a natural pause, and then the rest of the session is characterized by honest, open questions by the chaplain in an attempt to help the person draw out their ultimate truth, silent pauses for collecting and integrating thoughts, reflections and clarifications around what the chaplainee has shared, and ultimately, gratitude for sharing and a closing thought or two.
no fixing. no saving. no advising. no judging.
humans have a hard time with this list of "no's", in case you've never noticed.
in the beginning, none of us (thought that we) had much in the way of skills for holding these sharings, but we quickly learned how wrong we were. others of us were afraid we didn't have aspects of our lives we needed to be "chaplained" on. also wrong. put empathic people together in a space for long enough, and magic happens. exchange happens. reflection happens. and folks gain clarity of mind (or at least begin the approach to it) not from what someone else tells them to do, but from their own storytelling and from their own filling in the blanks. from their own "looking from a different angle" that might be prompted by a question the chaplain asks.
it isn't magic. it's pure humaning.
“the human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved. it simply wants to be witnessed.” parker j. palmer
what are some examples of scenarios that could benefit from a visit with an interfaith chaplain?
a person who feels stuck, like they're spinning their wheels and are unsure of where or how to move forward in their lives
a student who is about to finish college or a training program and has no idea what's next
a healthcare provider experiencing moral injury or compassion fatigue while working during the pandemic
a person faced with a difficult decision, where the correct way forward is anything but clear
a school administrator working to balance the needs of teachers, parents, and students
someone who wants to develop meaningful spiritual practices but does not have a religious tradition
an adult child who is trying to reconcile a complicated relationship with a parent who has just passed away
someone experiencing grief over a loss at a time when it's not safe to gather and mourn (which is at it's heart a public and communal act)
a parent who has experienced a difficult or complicated birth or who has companioned a partner through such an experience
someone who feels that their spirituality is growing and changing in a way that no longer fits with their historical religious faith
someone contemplating a career change who wants to find something more aligned with their soul's purpose
a parent who is struggling with priorities and meaning-making now that the nest is empty
a person in search of self-forgiveness for an act, thought, or belief that's causing guilt or shame
a hopeful parent working through infertility who is uncertain whether to adopt, seek treatment, or live in chosen childlessness
a person whose recent discoveries about themselves, recent transitions to their truest forms, or decisions to live in authenticity feel worthy of celebration but are unsupported by friends and family
and just about anything else you could possibly imagine. so often (almost always) what we need is not for someone to tell us what to do--we need to be witnessed in our transitions and uncertainties while we (with a little prompting) talk ourself towards the solution. how many times have you said something out loud, only to realize, at the sound of our own voice, that you actually DO know how you feel or think or what you should do? ("now that i hear myself say it...") how many times has a friend, attending to you in a moment of uncertainty, asked you a clarifying question that changed your whole perspective and granted "a-ha!" clarity. ("i hadn't thought of it that way!")
conversely, how many times has a well-meaning person offered advice or a "yea, me too! for me, it was..." that completely shut down dialog and moved the dilemma exactly nowhere. yep. advice is only ever what THAT person would do in YOUR position, and a "me too", while often a genuine attempt at human connection and solidarity, decenters the person who needs to be witnessed.
i realized quickly that i do a lot of chaplaining in my midwifery care. it can be as general as starting an appointment with the query "so, how have the last two weeks been for you?" instead of leading with a laundry list check in around symptoms and complaints. it can be as specific as starting a conversation around nutrition with "what are your goals for nourishing your body during pregnancy?" rather than leading with yea/nay feedback on a diet journal or data on necessary grams of protein. my job is to help people ascertain their own unique goals and then to support their journey towards their goals. do i share thoughts, data, and research? sure! but i do it with an invitation of the people who i serve. if someone doesn't want it, telling them they should do it will rarely help. at worst, it will lead to shame over "needing to do better" than they currently are.
that's quite a long way of saying that chaplaining is simply a way of holding and centering another person reflectively, non-judgmentally, curiously, and selflessly in a safe space for exploration.
we're not map-makers. we're sandbox builders. and we're inviting you to come play.
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain