Author Stacy Sergent said her calling into chaplaincy helps form her faith and spirituality. Now she is able to be the presence of God to those in crisis at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
You might think chaplains — those ministers called to be the calming presence of God wherever they are — are 100 percent certain in their faith with spiritual feet planted firmly on firm ground.
“We all have doubts,” said Gerald Hutchinson, a former military chaplain who now endorses and oversees chaplains and pastoral counselors for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
That was a lesson Stacy Sergent had to learn from experience on the job as a clinical staff chaplain at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
“I came out of seminary a little wishy-washy on my faith and that first year really forced me to figure it out,” said Sergent, who is endorsed by CBF.
‘You can’t fully prepare yourself’
She shares that spiritual and pastoral learning curve in her 2015 book Being Called Chaplain: How I lost my name and (eventually) found my faith.
Sergent again has taken to writing about her chaplaincy experiences. On Monday she published “A Day in the Life of a Chaplain” on the Baptist Women in Ministry website.
The short article gives hour-by-hour account of the sometimes mundane and sometimes gripping experiences these ministers have during a 12-hour shift.
That particular day ranged from grabbing a sandwich, notarizing some documents and speaking with a potential kidney donor to calming down a distraught relative to helping a family through a decision to remove a loved one from life support.
“The best and worst thing is you never know what any day is going to be like, so you can’t fully prepare yourself or know how you’re going to react when the pager goes off,” she said in a subsequent interview with Baptist News Global.
So she gets centered by practicing yoga and listening to a podcast of music, prayer and scripture.
Hutchinson said it’s crucial that chaplains go above and beyond to ensure their own mental, spiritual and physical health.
“Practicing self-care makes it easier to not become complacent to suffering and pain,” he said.
‘You just have to get to it’
Sergent said she has been there.
“If I am complacent, it’s a warning sign that I am close to burnout or tired — or that, spiritually, there is something off,” she said.
Her BWIM article takes its readers from task to task, many of which would be shocking for non-medical personnel to witness.
Part of her job is to interview any patient that expresses interest in advance directives, which spell out patients’ wishes in the event that the worst happens. Occasionally those patients and their families turn combative during these discussions. More often they are tearful encounters as patients and loved ones face mortality and other difficult realities. Others say no and ask her to leave.
And there are situations that are more difficult, still.
“A family in ICU has to make the decision whether or not to withdraw their loved one from life support,” Sergent writes in her BWIM article. “They feel it’s time to do so, based on doctors’ reports, but ask, ‘Will God forgive us? Are we giving up on her?’ We talk through the ethical and theological issues, then pray together.”
Sometimes there can be several of those situations in a single shift, she told BNG.
Emotionally and spiritually it can be draining. “You just have to get to it,” she said. “You can’t let this big, life-changing event get to you because you have to do it over and over.”
But they also require her full attention and presence — regardless how many happen in a single day.
“I still put myself in those families’ shoes to know that this is life changing for them, to be compassionate even if I have done it two times that day.”
‘How do I do this?’
Another responsibility is ministering to the hospital staff. That can range from nurturing relationships to helping medical professionals process their experiences.
It can also include helping doctors with death notifications, Sergent said. And that often means being there for the physician as well as for the deceased’s family.
“A lot of doctors are not great with that part of it,” she said.
Some will depart immediately after delivering the news, leaving Sergent with the aftermath.
“Sometimes a doctor will say (to her): ‘I have never done this before. What do I say? How do I do this?’”
Occasionally the encounters are merely awkward. Now and then, Sergent said, someone will ask for a Baptist chaplain to visit their room and be shocked when a woman arrives.
Others simply need a soothing presence during a crisis.
“I model calm for them.”
Sergent said she couldn’t do what she does today if she were running on the undefined Christian faith that defined her life before seminary and her first year at the hospital, which was in 2008.
“It was a generic sort of faith,” she said. “If you asked me too many questions all I could say was ‘Bible and Jesus,’ but it was never tested.”
That faith became defined as those pastoral challenges came.
“That first year forced me to figure it out because I ran into so many crises,” Sergent said.
Her chaplaincy ministry taught her other lessons, too, including getting used to being called chaplain 12 hours a day.
“That’s all people call me at the hospital,” Sergent said. “Some people don’t even know I am Stacy.”