Life as a Young Chaplain: On being a Spiritual Granddaughter

I became a hospital chaplain at the ripe young age of 24 years old, as a seminarian student. I knew very early in my life what I hoped to do in my career and went to college and graduate school with the intention of becoming a hospital chaplain. I met my first hospital chaplain, and my first female minister for that matter, when I was 17 years old and my grandfather was dying. The chaplain came to offer comfort to our family and I was immediately taken with her and what she did.

I’d have to say that being a young chaplain makes for a very different experience when visiting patients and their families than other chaplains might experience. At first, they are often curious about me.  They want to find out what led me to this career, how I became a chaplain, and how long I’ve been a chaplain (this one always cracks me up-are they trying to figure out my age (29) or my competency?). Then they ask me about my family, where I am from, what I like to do, or anything else that might help them compartmentalize or make sense out of a young chaplain.  And then they begin to parent me sometimes.  They don’t want to burden a young person with concerns of the old, suffering of the elderly; they want to protect me from those griefs because, after all, it is weighing on them so it’s bound to weigh heavily on me. They ask me how I can bear doing this work.  So I tell them how I appreciate everything I get to learn and about the amazing experiences I am so honored to be able to be a part of.  I tell them ‘I take home the good stuff’.        

Many of my patients want to teach me about what they have learned in life. I think it is a desire to spread their legacy, as well as teach me about the lessons that were hard for them to learn so I might be able to avoid any suffering/agony/waiting that they maybe had to endure.  And I certainly don’t mind.  Learning from my patients is one of the main reasons I love my work.  They teach me so much about what I want in life, illness and death.  Sooner or later they realize that I’m capable of hearing their hurts, and they open up.  As soon as they know I am serious about journeying with them, that I will respect their disclosure by remaining present and listening well, they start to talk. 

Life as a young chaplain is a good life.  Because I often visit patients who are much older than me, our age differences cannot be ignored.  However, I relish those moments when age disappears and only two people remain, one who is hurting and the one who offers compassion.  There is mutuality in that moment, one that allows the patient to trust and share with me, and a moment when they realize I am strong enough to hold them in their hurt.  This is why I became a chaplain; these moments when I encounter an experience I know can only be described as graced because I could never have created it on my own. 

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About Lauren Ivory

Lauren Ivory is a hospital chaplain working on Chicago's diverse north side. After receiving her Master of Divinity degree at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, MO she went on for further hospital ministry training at the Cleveland Clinic of Ohio. On the side, she enjoys helping couples plan wedding/commitment ceremonies and works with couples as a certified premarital guidance counselor.

4 thoughts on “Life as a Young Chaplain: On being a Spiritual Granddaughter

  1. So your patients have the opportunity to give and to recieve — to set aside their own worries for a time and offer their own wisdom and guidance in exchange for yours… what a unique and beautiful ministry!

  2. You are very lucky. The wisdom that one can only gain through experience is constantly being poured out for you. I envy you in that regard, but know that I could never bear the bittersweet weight you must by constantly aiding in so trying of times.

    Thank you for this post, you are in my prayers.

  3. Thanks guys! I really appreciate your thoughts and your prayers. I surely need them! I imagine you can see now how ministry, at least for me, is not some totally altruistic gesture because I receive so much in my job.

    Josh, its interesting to see how many people who are given to want to give back. My ex boyfriend and I used to visit the elderly in their homes. They always wanted to give something, but I knew they had so little; so we would take a glass of water or something like that. It makes us feel complete somehow to give back. Henri Nouwen wrote about this in his bread for the journey daily reflection book-how we give to others by letting them give to us. We give them a chance to express thanks, share their gifts, offer wisdom. We shouldnt deny someone a chance to help; afterall, its a very meaningful experience for us to help/give to others right? This is helpful for the perpetual volunteers among us, that stepping down or letting someone else run something allows them to use their gifts and talents.

    This is pretty counter intuitive for us in the U.S. where it seems customery for us to offer something, the other person turns it down twice, and you offer a third time and they will accept. Wierd isnt it? This little dance of expectations to offer something to guests and for the guests to turn it down. Of course, in some other cultures, turning something down is a real insult. Whoops.

    Thank you again!

  4. Yes, Lauren, that was my thought exactly … I don’t imagine most people you deal with in hospital ministry go in with the idea that they’ll be giving something of themselves — they probably go in very much preoccupied with their own problems and difficulties, and understandably so. That’s why it strikes me as such a wonderful blessing that they can find themselves unexpectedly in a situation where they just naturally fall into grace unawares.

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