A letter made me think

I minister and write as a chaplain. Last night I had an interesting experience that highlighted for me an important difference between chaplaincy and parish ministry: chaplains know that a person is in some sort of crisis – whereas ministers may have no reason to suspect a problem.shutterstock_17769166

Chaplains like social workers, GPs, psychologist, counsellors, and psychiatrists initially meet people at times of crisis, illness or trauma. We usually have no prior relationship or social connection with the people to whom we minister and people disclose things that they have not told their family or minister. This allows for greater objectivity for chaplains as we listen to their story, while hearing their emotion and pain, the way in which they construct their meaning. With these fragmentary clues to meaning, we hear of people’s faith and beliefs, but we also catch glimpses of their default ‘faith’ settings exposing the things that they really depend upon when everything else is in flux. We also hear where they belong in their web of relationships − family, church, community, culture and society and whether they experience healthy relationships or alienation and isolation. We see hints that point to loving relationships and clues to destructive relationships. We also look for clues as they express their desires and dreams, or fears and dreads, to see the role hope has in their thinking, with the aim of knowing how best to share Christ’s love and message of hope with them.

I am very conscious chaplaincy ministry is different from parish ministry in many ways, most particularly because it is a ministry offered in the public space to people of many different religious and faith positions.

I was contacted by someone last night who has been abused by their spouse. They are a couple that I have known for a number of years and at one stage we were part of the same church community. The abusive spouse has been involved in ministry in a number of congregations and is considered a leader in the ministries in which they are involved. I was shocked as I read the email, not comprehending what the letter was saying, until the abuser’s name was spelt out in print in the sentence. This was a most massive ‘aha’ experience for me. As I read the letter again, I remembered particular incidents and instances that jarred but I had never put these things together. I always thought their family just did things differently from us, but as soon as I read the letter I knew that it was true.

I suddenly realised what it must be like for clergy who know people in their congregation, who are on ministry teams and seem to have happy stable families and on the surface appear to be the ‘model’ Christian couple or family.

My reflection on this is: as people ministering among our congregations, we sincerely think that we know people, who are the model of a lively Christian faith in the parts of their life that we see. We forgive their idiosyncrasies, because we know their good works and believe that they mean well. The victim may act to keep the peace and might smooth things over for lots of reasons, include fear of shame or blame.

I have a new appreciation of the magnitude of the domestic violence problem is and how difficult it is to identify and deal with in parish situations, and I can see the need for new strategies and culture in relationship to these issues.

Kate Bradford is a hospital chaplain. Eternity published several articles in a series on domestic violence and the church in April 2015. You can read others here:

John Harrower: A Christian response to domestic violence

Under our own roof, Natasha Moore