The Pagan As Chaplain

— by David Kling, M.Div.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

–You get a call from a Pagan who found you on Witchvox. Her brother was in a terrible accident and is not expected to live. She pleads with you to meet her at the hospital. When you arrive, all the family is weeping. You know they are all churchgoing Presbyterians. They ask you to pray.

–The paid chaplain from the nearby prison contacts you because a group of inmates has threatened to sue the Department of Corrections if their religion is not accommodated, per the law. You’ve never been in a prison. You agree to meet the chaplain, but are turned back at the gate because you have with you your wallet, cell phone, and wifi tablet. All your notes for the meeting with the chaplain are on the tablet. Just the clang of the heavy metal gates creeps you out.

–Your baby sister is getting married and wants you to do the ceremony. “But not too Pagan,” she says to you. “I want it to be spiritual, but–well, you know.” Do you know?

Most of us did not plan to be “ministers” of any sort, but life can take us down some unexpected paths. If you feel drawn to serve others, you will sooner or later find yourself over your head if you have not had some good training or mentoring, or both. Chaplaincy brings up all of our personal issues and creates its own anxieties. Will we say the right thing? Do something unethical without realizing it? Offend someone unintentionally? Whether the context is a small faith community, a Pagan festival, an interfaith project or gathering, you need to order your personal ideas, lower your anxiety and function as the professional that you are. Chaplaincy is less about book smarts and more about common sense. It’s about entering into someone else’s spiritual distress without getting pulled into it and allowing it to take over. It’s about being able to function in multiple settings as a leader, being the person who is capable of journeying with someone else and helping them in their life journey.

My best advice for new chaplains is that if you can only do one thing, that would be listen to someone else, summarize what they have told you, then help them process what they are feeling. That’s the basics of chaplaincy, and if that’s all you do, people will appreciate that. Say you are in a hospital, you see someone dying of cancer, you are not afraid to say to that person, you are grieving because you are dying, or you are afraid or angry because you can’t spend the time with your family you’d like, but your life is ending soon. Those of us not trained in chaplaincy are afraid to go there. We want to say, it will be all right, but a lot of times it’s not all right. A chaplain has to be willing to go to that dark place with them. If someone is crying, a chaplain might say, It’s not okay, this is a dark place, it’s a prison, you miss your family. You don’t gloss over or put a bandaid on it, you go there with them. If a chaplain can help the person identify their feelings, then there can be healing. If they cannot identify the feeling, they get stuck.

I find that people typically respond better to our going to those dark places of spiritual pain with them rather than trying to avoid it. I said to a terminally-ill person recently, “When your family comes here and tells you ‘things are going to be okay,’ that makes you angry, doesn’t it? And she said, “Yes – but I just smile and don’t say anything!” By facing the darkness with people, you help them figure out what are they going to do with time they have left. Usually what happens is that people can’t name what is going on with them and the chaplain helps them with that.

David Kling’s religious background includes Christianity, Wicca, Druidry, Gnosticism, and Roman Paganism. His academic interests include Black Church studies, comparative theology, pastoral care and practical theology.