Appearances…Are they Important?

We’ve All Heard the Pleonasm,  Never judge someone by the way he looks or a book by the way it’s covered; For inside those tattered pages, there’s a lot to be discovered” — Stephen Cosgrove  — But We Must Always Be Attentive To How We Present Ourselves to the Client!

While it is true we, as chaplains and pastoral care providers, should never succumb to judgmentalism, much less judge a client by his or her appearance. To do so in our holy roles as ministers of pastoral care to the suffering would be an abomination.

That having been said, I think many of our professional and volunteer associates have much to learn about how their appearance affects the recipient of our ministrations. Here are some observations.

My Collarette

The Collar: An external sign of internal disposition. First of all, I feel very strongly that the professional chaplain and clergy should wear the collar or the insignia of their status. For example, I invariably wear a collar when providing pastoral care to Christians but I remove it when visiting with clients of the non-Christian faith traditions to avoid making the impression that I am there to somehow “convert” them. Sounds silly to some, but it’s a real problem.

We each of us in the professions have our identifying insignia and signs. The nurse and medical worker may don scrubs, the physician usually has a stethoscope hanging from some part of his person, the housekeeper has his/her uniform. When we walk into a room we should make it as easy as possible for the persons in that room to identify our role without having to ask myriad questions. For the professional chaplain, the collar does the trick, and this is especially true for the interfaith chaplain.

Be Recognizable

Women and pastoral care associates–persons who may volunteer to visit the sick and comfort the dying but do not have professional education or training–must also be held accountable for a responsible appearance. For example:

Observe a dress code. I doesn’t have to mean you have to look like an undertaker in mourning or a puritan matron but you certainly should not look like a pimp or a harlot when you enter a room.

Women clergy and professional chaplains may have a lot to learn about appearance and wardrobe. If you choose to wear a collar then think about the rest of the get-up, please. The collar is a mark of dignity and should not be worn with designer pastel blouse with matching clam-diggers, accompanied by the latest in slipper footwear! Be serious and be taken for serious. I worked with a Presbyterian clergywoman who insisted on wearing the clerical collar, which was fine and dandy, but from the shoulders down she looked like a pole dancer! It’s hard enough for many people to get used to women as clergy so why make it more difficult or shoot yourselves in the designer slippers? Use your head and you may make it easier for many to accept the fact that many denominations are not ordaining women.

You decide….
What impression will you make?

Please be normal and neat. Sounds pedantic? It’s not. I spent a number of weeks watching an intern who, for some inane reason, was not counseled or subjected to the institutional dress code. He had shoulder-length hair, at times it appeared it had been washed in the past week, rarely wore underwear (at least never a T-shirt), roamed around the floors with an open-front shirt, sleeves rolled up, no socks, etc. Had enough? Can you imagine him strutting into a patient’s room and announcing, “Hi, I’m Joe, your chaplain!” O.K. you can’t imagine that. Well, neither could many of our patients, I’d wager.

Hippie chaplains
don’t make good impressions.

My point is that if you are not clergy or not a professional chaplain, you must be normal and neat in appearance. Take out the piercings, cover the body modifications, forget the 4-inch long acrylic orange and black nails, etc. Those things present a frightening appearance!

Neither should you be doubled over for all of the pseudo-religious symbols of idolatry you tend to wear like huge crosses or multiple icons of saints or sacred personalities. It’s obscene and offensive even to understanding intellects to see someone with bracelets galore of the Blessed Virgin, charm bracelets of crosses and saints, multiple chains with multiple talismans suspended from them. You have to wonder where all the demons are that the wearer is attempting to ward off, or whether s/he is actually hawking the trinkets, or whether the evil s/he is combatting is outside of him/her or is inside him/her–are they keeping it out or confining it within? Think of what the client feels when something like that walks into the room! Be considerate: A simple cross, star of David, Muslim crescent, or sacred Sanskrit character suffices.

Watch your language. Try not to talk so damned much! Your role is presence and as a listener. You are not there to educate or to proselytize! Regrettably, some persons’ voices are worse than an enema! High-pitched, whiney, screachy, preachy, scratchy, or so subdued they sound like silent prayer. The client should not be tortured by your voice or your diction nor should they have to ask you repeatedly to speak up. Practice speaking, if necessary. Soften the acute edges of your vocal tone. You’re there to comfort not to excite.

And a brief word on posture and demeanor. Most persons suffering don’t need another long face coming into the room. Whether we’re 30 or 80 we can still stride the couple of paces, erect, eyes bright, the faint nuance of joy and a smile. Even if the suffering client thinks you’re a bit nutz, it just might take her/his mind off of the suffering for a moment or two. And stand up straight, for mercy’s sake! Most of my colleagues walk into the room not only as if it were a death vigil but in the dim light they look like Nosferatu or a big buzzard approaching, hunched over, clutching. I imaging if I were lying in the bed I’d need a bed pan real quick! And don’t hover. The poor soul in the bed has figures hovering all day long and most of the night. Sit or stand towards the end of the bed, close enough to be able to hold a hand or lightly touch but not close enough to be sharing breaths.

Some time ago, while working with the family of a young man close to death and making good progress, a colleague visited while on-call one evening. I returned to my unit and found the family a bit offish and when I prodded a bit, the patient simply uttered the word, “freak.” Astonished, I apparently cued the family to share with me the experience they had during the night with my colleague, a woman university instructor, a PhD, who was prepping for priesting in the Episcopal church, and who was participating in CPE as part of a pastoral formation requirement. Apparently, the colleague pushed herself on the family and hovered, making her presence more of an incursion than a welcome presence, and putting my work at risk. The woman knew nothing of boundaries and earned herself a reputation among patients and staff. Poor supervision creates situations like that and does a great deal of damage.

The modern model is interfaith. In other words, you really should leave your own faith tradition and conscience outside the room, unless you are invited by the occupants to bring it in with you. You are a neutral care-provider and may be asked to do things that might not necessarily be part of your faith or spiritual tradition. So what do you do? Pastorally, you do your best to support the client. If the request is out of your ken or if you feel you’ll have a psychotic break if you comply with the request, please just gently explain that you are not competent to do the ritual but assure the client you would refer it to another provider with the necessary skills. And keep your promise! I worked with a Buddhist pastoral care provider who came to supervision and explained she had to refuse a baptism. Fine. But what did she do after refusing. Another pastoral care provider, Jewish, felt her conscience prohibited her from baptizing an infant, dead or alive, as a Christian. Fine. And then … We can’t insist that a chaplain traumatize his or her conscience but we can insist that s/he decline the gift and refer, immediately, and ensure that the ritual is performed as soon as possible by a competent colleague. To many this would seem obvious but regrettably also, to some it’s a dilemma.

The model is ministry of intentional presence; please don’t try to baffle with bullshit! One trainee from a Calvinist tradition visited one of my clients while he was on-call one night. The client was close to death and the parents and family revealed that the patient had never been baptized and asked if it would be possible to baptize the patient. The CPE intern reported that he had educated the family on adult baptism and they had decided not to baptize. Had I not had self-restraint I would have strangled the intern when I heard his understanding of adult baptism! His ignorance was mind-boggling! Regrettably, when I started rounds, I was informed that the patient had died during the night and had already been removed from the floor and the family had gone home. No further comment on the event.

Just because you’re clergy does not make you a competent pastoral care provider in the context of suffering or death. You may be a gifted preacher, a wonderful administrator and leader, or an enlightened biblical scholar but you may also have boundary problems and deep-seated discomfort around the sick, the suffering, the dying. Don’t push it. And volunteer supervisors, wake up!

And speaking of volunteer supervisors. I’ll repeat: Wake up! You are probably not competent to supervise or even to evaluate the necessary knowledge and skill required of persons you are bringing in to provide pastoral care! And being a dominatrix is discouraging those who are qualified. If you have volunteers who provide “pastoral care” they are probably providing only visitation services or, in the case of Roman Catholics, probably just bringing the Eucharist (and even the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are rarely properly trained). You may be providing more of a nuisance than support. Get help! Bring in someone who is properly educated and trained to do the assessments and training of pastoral care associates.

Beware of envious or troubled colleagues! I’ll never forget the night I spent at the bedside of a Buddhist patient whose parents were western Christian and coolly accepted the patient’s choice of spiritual tradition. I had worked most of the day with a Buddhist colleague to arrange with the unit management and security to allow a group of Buddhist monks to come in to perform the required death rituals on the ICU. Since I had worked with the patient’s family for several days and they had left when the monks arrived, I remained with the patient and throughout the ritual and participated as much as I could well after my shift and into the night. It was incredibly moving and I thanked my colleague for guiding me through it. The next morning, I was stopped in the hall by the director of pastoral care who informed me that one of my colleagues, a troubled gay minority CPE resident had reported that he overheard me in a conversation with a group of RC deacons use an epithet when referring to the Buddhists. I responded by telling the director that the resident must have been confused because I had spent most of my evening praying with the Buddhists and would hardly use such a word to refer to them. Enough said. There was obviously something much deeper going on in that situation than the director was aware of or wanted to admit. But it serves to keep us all aware that we are very vulnerable and very much subject to envy and ambush.

That’s all for the moment. Our next installment will be on supervisors and certification. Are they really qualified and does it really mean anything at all?

Thanks for your visit, for reading, and for your comments!


The Black Monk

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