02/04/2013 07:23 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

You Might Be Surprised at How Helpful a Professional Chaplain Can Be, While Not Being 'Religious'

I guess because I have been a professional chaplain for many years, I am always surprised that people don't understand what it is that professional chaplains do. In a recent HuffPost article by Gina Rider, entitled, "Accepting Spiritual Support at the Hospital", Ms. Rider talked about her own experience of realizing that she wanted to be visited by a hospital chaplain. Some of the responses that were posted in response to her article dismayed me because many of them showed a lack of understanding of what a professional chaplain (a Board Certified Chaplain - BCC) can do for a patient and his/her family and friends. At the same time, I know that there are hospitals that do not use professional chaplains and so those who are assigned to provide spiritual care, in fact, may lack the training that professional chaplains have had and lack the ability to separate out what they believe from what the patients and/or family members they are visiting believe.

First, we do NOT proselytize -- unless we are hired in a specific capacity, such as the Protestant chaplain or the Jewish chaplain or the Muslim chaplain, we don't talk about our own belief system. We work with the patient and family around their belief system. And, that belief system doesn't even have to be "religious" or "spiritual" -- it can be nature that helps you when you are facing a difficult time in your life. We work with you where YOU are, not from our own belief system. And, we will not pray with you unless YOU want to be prayed for. And, if you do want prayer, we will pray for what YOU want us to pray for, not what we think we should be praying for, for you. We will also provide appropriate care to you if you are "religious" and do want religious support. We don't discriminate!

We are among the few caregivers in the hospital who have the time to sit and listen to the patient and family members. We listen without an agenda and work to support the patient and family members in whatever ways we can. We do not approach our work as "religious" people, but rather as professionals who can help people sort out whatever is going on for them -- questions, doubts, fears, hopes, etc.

We are also trained to help you when you need to make a difficult decision. Again, we don't have our own agenda; we help you make your OWN decision. We ask you questions to help you clarify your own thought-process. And, we will support you in whatever decision YOU make. Our personal opinion and/or our personal belief system do NOT come into play. We are trained professionals. We have gone through a minimum of 1600 hours of clinical training as well as looking at our own issues so that we can name them, and then put them aside in order to help you make your own decision.

Professional chaplains have to meet 29 different competencies in order to be certified, and we are grilled by a committee of our peers, who expect us to be able to not only espouse our own belief system, but be able to support others in a way that is helpful to the other. As I wrote in a chapter of the book, Professional Spiritual & Pastoral Care, I operate with a "dual-track mind-set and heart-set." Professional chaplains differ from congregational clergy in one major way:

My non-chaplain colleagues use their theology when counseling or providing pastoral care to one of their own congregants. That is what is expected -- a house of worship clergyperson espouses the theology of the denomination of which he or she is a part. Professional chaplains must be able to move aside their own belief system(s)/theology and support the system of the person to whom they are providing chaplaincy care. We don't forget our own theology, but our theology has to be large enough to enable us t be open to the theology of the "other" -- a theology that enables people to function in the situation in which they find themselves.

I intentionally wrote about supporting the "system of the person" because we work with people where they are and how they function in the world. When a health crisis hits, we often forget whatever it is we have relied on to help us out in the past. Chaplains help people "refind" whatever it is that helped them get through difficult times in the past. We are there to assist you in whatever ways we can. And, if you don't want to see us, that is okay too. We don't take it personally because you do have a right to refuse our services.

There are many other ways that we can be supportive to patients and their families, so the next time you or a loved one finds yourself in a hospital, don't be afraid to ask if the hospital has professional chaplains and if they do, I hope you won't hesitate to ask to see one of us. You might be surprised at how helpful we can be.