Showing up Imperfectly: What I Learned as a Hospital Chaplain

My first experience with hospital chaplaincy came when my father was dying of cancer, in my mid-30s. Through this difficult time, the chaplains brought our room such peace and calm. It was a profound gift and blessing. One chaplain in particular stands out in my mind. He came to us in the moments after my father passed, and offered us a blessing. He was able to comfort us in a way that was both reassuring and peaceful, holding the space that beautifully allowed us to process, cry, and also laugh. In the years following my father’s passing, I continued to think of the chaplains that spent time with us. The experience simmered in my mind and heart for a long time, until I finally began to wonder if I could do this job, as well. This question led to a discernment process, helping me find chaplaincy as a vocation and calling. 

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Now, I am a newly minted hospital chaplain, having trained for this role for several years — going through theology school and onsite clinical pastoral training, and balancing group reflections and learning with practical experience with patients. I deeply love discovering new connections with people and supporting others in their spiritual journeys, and look forward to doing this as a profession. Through this training, I have learned so much about myself, and realize I have much still to learn, especially in recognizing opportunities for growth in my understanding of myself and in my faith. 

I will never forget the first room I stood in front of during my training at the hospital. I knew I was supposed to be there. I was confident of my discernment and calling. Still, I was terrified to walk in. What if I did the wrong thing? How would I know what to say? What if I couldn’t connect with the patient? I was afraid of all the mistakes I could make and all the things I might forget to do. As I stood outside that door, I listened to my fears, and realized something even deeper — I was afraid of my own imperfections. 

I stood in the hallway for a few moments, leaning into this fear. I doubted everything. I began to wonder if I knew enough, and more so, if I was enough. Then I took a deep breath, and did the only thing I knew to do, to call on God for help. Listening to God brought me on this journey to chaplaincy in the first place. If he wanted me there, I needed to lean on him now, more than ever. I asked God to guide my words and my steps and to help me in this work. I asked God for a sense of calm and confidence. And I also asked God for help and for self-acceptance of my imperfections.

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After a few more deep breaths, I knocked on the door and began the visit with the patient. He was sitting quietly in his dark room, his head in his hands. I did not know why he was in the hospital. Was he battling cancer? Recovering from surgery? Struggling with depression? I had no idea. I walked in anyway, and said “Hello.” It wasn’t a perfect visit. I probably even said something wrong. However, one thing I do know is that I showed the patient, I was there. I was present in the room asking him how he was doing and if I could support him. I was there to listen to his concerns and fear and show that I care. Even if I misspoke or struggled to find the right thing to say, at least I could offer connection and caring. It didn’t matter if I was perfect, it mattered that I was there. As I walked out of the room, I immediately realized that God had been there with me, guiding me and helping me have strength to face my fears. God, alone, gave me the push to walk into the room, despite my doubts, and he gave me the comfort I needed to accept my imperfect self and offer my presence to another person.

We all have moments of fear and doubt. I see now how God is always present and guiding me through these difficult times, allowing me to confront and acknowledge these insecurities. I find I must remember to call on God for strength and calm during these times of self-doubt. God’s love surrounds all of us in unconditional loving care. When I open up to this deep love, I find acceptance of my imperfections, and with this, such beautiful new space for growth and faith.