Finding Our Way As Midwives
It seems to me that people who feel unsafe retreat to extremes. When uncertainty surrounds us, it is preferable to run to one end or the other, to have a wall against which you can put your back, to have a group whose identity and number can be a support. I don’t think I need to name the number of arenas in public life where this occurs—we are all too painfully aware of it. But what has surprised me is how pervasive such dynamics and divisions can be in chaplaincy.
Dividing Line: Presence or Surgery
While such a description of a very common divide in chaplaincy will no doubt be overly-reductionistic, the divide seems to go something like this—many chaplains view their work as primarily about presence, heart, and empathy. Then, some seem to think that supervisors care only about “surgery”, the head, and maintain a critical (or safe) distance.
More than being a struggle between two groups within our organization, it might be best understood as a struggle within each one of us. And yet it is easier to suspend the struggle and run to one camp or the other.
“I’m presense. I won’t fail. I’ve made sure of it by not taking risks. I don’t make interventions and lead the patient somewhere new because if I do, they might reject me.”
Or, “I’m a surgeon. I take risks, but the risk is really owned by the other person. I don’t get close enough to feel the pain of it myself. That’s why I keep the mask on.”
With presence alone and no intervention, we don’t risk failure. With surgery alone and no presence, we protect ourselves from feeling the failure. I want to propose that if we can offer anything prophetic as chaplains, it is a willingness to fail. And on these terms, both of these extremes fail.
Co-People or Chaplain-Patient
Given this split vision, what has struck me most is the insistence among some chaplains that we really aren’t chaplains; rather we are “co-people”. “There really is no chaplain or patient—instead, we are just present together.” If I grasp the intended beauty of this statement, they seem to be asserting that no one is better than anyone else and that our work should not be paternalistic. If so, I can respond with a resounding “Amen!”
However, this line about being “co-people” falls short of reality when viewed from a patient’s perspective—they see you as their chaplain. I dare say that this vision of “co-people” thus falls short of being “patient-centered” because it is not how the patient sees it. It is more about our idealized anthropology than about the patient.
Honesty, Power, and Owning Our Role
As everyone reading this is likely in the choir, I imagine we all know the danger of a young priest who begins wearing the collar before he understands how much power is attributed to this symbol. He or she is too fresh to realize that such accouterments actually require gentler movements because whatever is said is likely multiplied in the hearing because it comes from a collar.
Similarly, when we walk into a room and disclose our role as that person’s chaplain, we are no longer “co-people” in their experience. From the moment we introduce ourselves, we have become their chaplain. In their hearing, we are differentiated; that is inevitable, and it is even good! We certainly don’t want to think of ourselves as better than our patients or as an uncaring professional, but that is never what being a chaplain meant. Being a chaplain is to be a differentiated professional who does care.
The role even means something whether we feel our pastoral authority or not. Even if we don’t exercise the “power” overtly that comes with the role, that reality does not prevent our authority from being felt in the patient. We know this when our people apologize for using 4-letter words in our presence, assuming they have offended someone whose mere presence demands an apology.
Put another way, as we all know from our clinical training, the supervisee-trainee relationship is asymmetrical. So is the chaplain-patient relationship. In fact, it is the very particularity of our role with the patient that allows so much of our encounter to occur on sacred ground.
It is good that when we go into the room, we don’t do so as a physician. We are not these to stand (and not sit), to cross our arms, to listen to the heartbeat and then cut the patient off as they share their experience of the illness. (Of course, all physicians are not like this, but you get the point.) However, I also don’t think we are there just to be “co-people” either; many of our people are looking to be led somewhere, and we are the ones they look to.
Transcendence: The Role of the Midwife
There must be some middle way between these extremes—between presence and professionalism, between heart and head, between empathy and critical distance. We are both professionals and we are people who care deeply in our souls. We aren’t there to do the work for the patient, but we also aren’t there to do no work. So what are we?
I suggest that our answer lies closer to home than we imagine—it is in our covenant. In our common work together, we commit to midwife one another in our respective spiritual journeys.
A midwife doesn’t sit in the corner inactive, but she also doesn’t administer an epidural, shielding the mother from the pain that is her own. The midwife doesn’t deliver the baby on her own while making the laborer become more passive. She listens to the breath of the laboring mother, becoming attuned to her contractions, and connected to her spirit.
The midwife puts a hand on the mother’s back, supports her in her pushing, in her pain, and through this transformational journey, helps the mother to discover that her pain has given way to a new life that is precious and sacred beyond measure. Ultimately, she leads the mother and invites her to trust the bidding of her own body. I could offer a translation of what this embodied process means for those of us who work with the soul, but you no doubt already know.
The midwife seems to me to be the way between and beyond these polarized options. It seems to be what we all have in common. It seems to be how we do our work when we do it well. I know I set this article up as if I have something new to say—sorry to disappoint because the reality is that I don’t. It is the tradition that can serve us; perhaps by moving back to it, we will move forward.
We won’t always get the right balance, but it is balance that we are after. When we walk out the door as a midwife, the patient won’t be in withdrawal, lacking their co-person, nor is the patient untransformed just thinking how great the professional was that just walked out the door. Instead, she thinks—or better, she feels—“What a gift this new life is. Look at what I’ve done.”
After this work of presence and precision, attainment and intervention, the midwife does what is most essential—she disappears…
Rev. Matthew Rhodes is the Director of Religious Ministries with the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. He is currently enrolled in the Doctorate of Psychology Program in Clinical Pastoral Supervision with the Institute for Psychodynamic Pastoral Supervision. You can reach him at email@example.com.