Empathy and the Chaplain; 3rd Year Reflections

Published: April 17, 2012

“We send our regrets with deepest Empathy,” read the cards found at any corner drugstore.

Is Empathy anything more than a facade of Hallmark?  Surely, empathy is more suggestive than calligraphy on cardstock, guised with mournful lilacs and carnations.  Imprecisely, empathy recognizes the common pain and frailty of humanity, while respecting the uniqueness of every human individual and situation. We, as humans, possess a fundamental intuition that understands the emotions of a friend in crisis, but an equally powerful impulse exists that fears the vulnerability such expression entails.  When the empathic impulse prevails, it has the power to spiritually and emotionally heal another through the silent resignation to the limits of our communion.  When the superficial impulse prevails, our cold or shallow response can deny the genuine humanity of another to painful degrees.

It is the exploration of empathy and its practical expression that forms the curriculum of Clinical Pastoral Education.

Many Wake Forest University School of Divinity Students choose to enroll in CPE at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where our own Associate Professor of Pastoral Care, Mark Jensen, is a supervisor.

The curriculum of CPE is cyclical. Self-reflection, practical application, peer review and supervision—rinse and repeat—is the chosen pedagogical model whose textbook is the living documents of the human person in crisis.  By integrating a holistic understanding of self, a pragmatic narrative theology and a breadth of genuine human experiences, we only begin to understand the depths of empathy and its visible manifestation. Underlying the entire project is the affirming trust that everyone is capable of true empathy and that with faithful navigation of emotional responses, we can offer moments of hope to the weak, sick and dying.

The emphasis of CPE, ironically, begins with understanding self-identity.  Instead of being overwhelmed by instructions for patient visits and pointers to guide pastoral conversation, we students are constantly challenged to understand the nuances of self-story, hidden wounds and emotional conflicts through exploration of family history and personal benchmarks.

Once self-reflection begins, Chaplain interns are encouraged to take the faithful step into a hospital room, next to a bedside and offer spiritual care. Accepting our role as chaplain is integrated into our own already challenged identity.

After a few visits, we return to our “therapy group,” as some of us call it, to present a verbatim of our visits and lovingly investigate not only the practical matters of conversation, but the source of emotions sparked by the people whose stories we hear.  The influence of veterans like Dr. Jensen and our supervisor extraordinaire, Sandy Greene, seasons our growth with piercing perceptions and empowering affirmations.

Sparking the energy in the Chaplain realm is the crucible where our theological education meets practical reality. Our theology is under constant revision, challenged by the people we meet.  Yet, the scripture, theology and history so vital to our education becomes the most resilient resource from which we draw to provide pastoral care.

After a year in the hospital basement, I am no expert on pastoral care.  I have only begun to scratch the surface of empathy and its fullest expression.  Learning to trust the feelings of sadness and fear that well up inside me when I hear the story of a Leukemia patient is a step in the right direction.  Cutting ourselves open to be vulnerable to the hostility of the world is wrenching, but necessary in a place such as this. When the blade begins to carve, however, it becomes clearer that sickness is no match for drops of empathy.

Logan Lloyd
Third Year