At the close of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI spoke of “women impregnated by the Spirit of the Gospel,” and more recently Pope Francis has called for a “new theology of women.” There are thousands of Catholic lay women discerning how to share their gifts and responding to ministerial calls. In many cases, these women are well-trained and highly educated professionals who bring a wealth of life experience to their work in parishes, diocesan offices, faith-based non-profit organizations, hospitals, schools, and many other settings.
This post on Lauren Ivory is the fourth in a series which celebrates Catholic lay women’s vocations and profiles some of the many women who are enriching the life of church. Past profiles include Kate Burke (New Lectio Divina) and Rita Emmenegger (medical missioner) , and Mary Ruppert (L’Arche companion). If you know a woman in ministry that you think should be profiled, please email me.
(This series will take a break for the months of September and October as I will be serving with Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami as they accompany and provide legal representation for Central American migrant children. Thanks for your prayers as I prepare for this newest call to ministry and please check in on the blog for reflections on service in Miami!)
– Rhonda Miska
“I gravitate to the story of the hemorrhaging woman the gospels. In some translations it says she just touched the fringe of the hem of Jesus’ garment. She believed that much in the power. Jesus’ response to her is so compassionate. Wordlessly, he understands. He doesn’t say a lot but he understands – that’s a model for me of what I want to do in my work.”
So describes Lauren Ivory, M.Div, BCC (Board Certified Chaplain) her vision of chaplaincy after over ten years of serving in this ministry. She is currently at Hope Palliative & Hospice Care in Palatine, IL and has also served as a chaplain at the Cleveland Clinic, St Francis Hospital, and Alexian Brothers Medical Center.
Ivory recognizes that chaplaincy isn’t always understood and valued, especially in the medical profession in the Western world which is focused on the bottom line and concrete results. “Chaplains are an easy target” when hospitals are looking to cut staff or pare down budgets. However, the benefits of the spiritual companioning that chaplains provide to patients and family members are being recognized more and more. Ivory cited a study done at Rush hospital showing how patients have a decrease in blood pressure as they talk to a chaplain.
For Ivory, chaplaincy is all about the ministerial art of deep listening. Drawing on the work of Quaker writer and spiritual teacher Parker Palmer, she describes chaplaincy as a “clearness committee of two” that requires “listening between the lines.” Ivory seeks to perceive well a patient’s communication and then mirror back to them in words which are different, but similar.
This listening and mirroring back may “seem like a small thing,” Ivory says. “But it’s this intense need that we have to be heard. If the patient or family member felt heard, it’s beautiful.”
The role of a Catholic lay woman as chaplain is unfamiliar to some. “At my last hospital, I got asked if I was ‘Father’s helper,” Ivory recounts. An element of her ministry is recognizing when she is not the right minister to accompany a patient. “I know that sometimes people need…someone with a collar. If that’s what will bring them healing, I seek to work with a priest.”
However, Ivory describes many cases where her identity as a lay female chaplain opens doors in connecting with patients. “There’s a lot of different reasons…I don’t always know why patients connect with me. Some men I can tell won’t open up and be vulnerable with another men. So in that case my gender is actually helpful,” she notes. “And there are so many women are delighted that women are doing this now, especially Catholic women.” She also recognizing that her lay minister status can make her more accessible to lapsed Catholics and to patients who are not members of a given faith tradition.
Ivory serves not only patients and their families, but medical staff and volunteer caregivers as well. She offers trainings in reflective listening to Eucharistic ministers so they can bring a greater degree of comfort to patients. She also offers training and support to medical professionals at the hospital, especially the ones providing the most direct care to patients.
“Patients will open up to CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants). The CNAs have been asked some of the deepest questions you could ever imagine when they are bathing patients! I try to give them tools to help them with that. As a chaplain, one is a chaplain to the staff as well,” Ivory stated.
She credits her family as the root of her call to ministry, since her father was a physician, and one who listened well to his patients. Growing up in Iron River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Ivory wasn’t exposed to female ministers as a child, but when she met a female minister as a high school student, she had an attraction that that work. “So many women come to this as a second career, I feel fortunate that I knew so early,” she remarked.
Ivory hold a Masters in Divinity from the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis, MO, and she stresses the importance of ministerial training: “To me a part of the calling is being professionally prepared…being a good steward to the calling.”
She also values her certification with the Association of Professional Chaplains. Though the work was “grueling” – submission of verbatims, a lengthy autobiography, and various essays – she appreciates the end result. “The certification process felt like my commissioning, a sending forth,” she recognizes – an experience that is significant since she is a lay woman.
Ivory recognizes that her various education experiences (especially pastoral counseling classes and Clinical Pastoral Education) and her various ministry experiences (including internships in a funeral home, a parish, and a hospital emergency room) have contributed to her own personal development. “All of these things help me be the best chaplain, and are also enormously helpful to me as a person in my own spiritual growth. It’s something I laugh with God about – I’m in this to help others, but it supports my own development.”
The moments of grace that Ivory experiences as a chaplain offering deep listening and accompaniment are many. She recalls sitting with a woman who was suffering from unresolved feelings from a rape years before. “The patient said ‘I know people say everything happens for a reason but I just can’t see how that could be with this situation (the rape)’. My response was ‘not everyone sees it that way. Would you like to talk about some if the other ways people think about this?’ She had a relief while we were talking that was powerful for me to witness,” Ivory recalls.
Sometimes even the mistakes that come from misunderstanding become openings for grace in Ivory’s ministry. “I asked a patient a question of clarification, and I was totally off. But it helped her to say, ‘no! That’s not what I meant.’ I saw an opening happen after that moment. I gave her something to push back against.”
Accompanying those near the end of life and assisting with funerals are treasured pieces of her chaplaincy. Ivory explained: “for the most part, people have a beautiful death, with family around them, a lot of love and sharing. I find it really amazing to be a part of.” Through encouraging family and friends to tell the whole story about the deceased and through honoring the bereavement process, she seeks to make funerals a “beautiful moment of grief work” instead of a “grief crisis.”
In the various ways that she serves others as a chaplain, Ivory describes her vocation as growing out of a desire to “be with those who are suffering…to be a compassionate presence.” Which brings us back to the Gospel passage of Jesus’ encounter with the hemorrhaging woman which provides the model for Ivory.
“I see my role as journeying with, not for. Accompaniment. I do what I can, where I can, how I can for as long as I can…. and I trust that when the patient is ready for the next step, God will put that in their life.”