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CRC Chaplains Take Time Away

October 7, 2020

Of the Christian Reformed Church’s 153 chaplains, nearly 110 took part in Chaplaincy and Care Ministry’s recent annual training conference, focusing on the theme "Come to Me: Sufficient Grace, Perfect Power, and Humanity.”

An underlying theme of the conference was finding strength in weakness and growing beyond trauma.

Held online because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the event gave chaplains a chance to spend time away from their hectic ministries — to learn, pray, worship, reflect, and be refreshed, said Sarah Roelofs, director of Chaplaincy and Care Ministry.

As part of the conference, chaplains gathered virtually from locations across North America. While one small group was able to gather in a church and connect with the conference that way, most others spent time in personal retreat away from home and logged in for the Zoom gatherings from wherever they were..

“Our chaplains are frontline workers who provide spiritual care to thousands of folks every week in an ever-changing work environment,” said Roelofs.

“They are being creative and adaptive as they seek to provide spiritual care to patients, military service members, residents, and their loved ones during a time of great pain, grief, and loneliness. They continue to extend the gospel into places that have to restrict visits from local church pastors and family members.”

In meeting together for the annual conference, Roelofs added, chaplains had the chance to connect with others who share the same challenges, especially during this time of pandemic. In virtual break-out chat rooms, in plenary sessions, and in their individual retreat centers and other places during the three-day conference, they were able to share some of their concerns and lay their burdens down.

“We also carved out time and provided resources for chaplains to engage in spiritual disciplines,” said Roelofs. “This allowed them to tailor the conference to meet their spiritual care needs.”

And, especially in this time, chaplains have their own challenges to face. Roelofs added, “There is a toll on one’s body and soul in providing spiritual care in environments where dying patients aren't able to be surrounded by family and friends in their hospital room, nursing home residents with dementia do not understand why they aren't able to see their family members anymore, and staff are burned out from having to undergo yet another quarantine and test due to a COVID-19 exposure at work.”

To help address concerns like these and to lift the spirits of chaplains, the conference provided times of praise and worship and plenty of time for participants to interact with one another.

In an evaluation of the conference, one chaplain wrote, “I thought the virtual format would be impersonal and wooden. The Holy Spirit worked by making it an engaging and meaningful experience of sharing, learning, and resting.”

Another wrote, “Everyone was open and willing to share. Even though it was on Zoom, the fellowship and camaraderie came through. The sessions were informative and spoke to the heart of what I face as a chaplain.”

The plenary speakers included Mandy Smith, lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation with its own fair-trade café in Cincinnati, Ohio. Smith is a regular contributor to Christianity Today and Missio Alliance and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry.

Also speaking was Alida van Dijk, a certified supervisor-educator with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care and an approved clinical supervisor for the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario.

Major Joseph M. Kamphuis, a part-time pastor at Chelwood CRC in Albuquerque, N.Mex., and a full-time, CRCNA chaplain with the New Mexico Air National Guard (USAF), also served as a conference speaker. He is interested in combatting suicide, especially among service members, veterans, and their families, and this has led him to study and understand trauma and how people can grow from the traumatic events they have experienced.

In her presentation, Smith recalled attending a large pastor’s leadership conference. At the time, she said, she was struggling with accepting the position of senior pastor at her church in Cincinnati.

Looking around at the other pastors at that conference, she said, she was struck by how unworthy she felt to assume the top position at her church, where she was then serving as an associate pastor.

“I felt so out of place. No one looked like me. I was not business minded enough. I was not extroverted or muscular enough. It sent me into a tailspin,” she said.

Leaving that pastor’s conference, she said, she went back to her hotel room, stretched out on the bed, and cried out, “God, you’ve made a mistake. I have nothing to give to this position.”

But, as she lay there, she eventually thought about 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, where the apostle Paul writes about having a thorn in his flesh and asks God to remove it: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

“I thought about that — ‘when I am weak, then I am strong,’” said Smith. And she eventually came to see that God had called her to the job as lead pastor, so she accepted it, assured in her weakness God would give her the strength to do what the job required.

“I realized,” she said, “that God can use all of us to share our variety of personalities. . . . Weakness teaches us we need God. What a beautiful thing it is that we are not alone in our weakness. Our broken places are where God shows his power.”

In a joint presentation, Kamphuis and van Dijk
spoke about what they call “post-traumatic growth” — the idea that we can learn and grow from traumatic experiences that we have.

“Post-traumatic growth is an inherently biblical concept,” said Kamphuis. “Joseph was sold into slavery, but God intended it for good. Job was struck down but not destroyed as he grew stronger when he realized God was there for him.”

Paul is, of course, a powerful example of the axiom “When I am weak, then I am strong,” said Kamphuis. “In reading Paul, we can ask what traumas have happened to us. . . . We can talk about growth after trauma and realize we can offer hope.”

In her presentation, van Dijk spoke to chaplains about the role they can play in helping people grow from traumatic experiences. First and foremost, they can be faithful witnesses to someone experiencing pain in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

“It is your presence that provides support in the moment — it is as if your nervous system is connected to their nervous system,” she said. “You support them in their dislocation and allow them to reorient themselves.”

Growth after trauma, she added, “is that experience that integrates the trauma into someone’s life story in a way that promotes health and healing.”

Right now, many people in North America are undergoing trauma, she added; “we are painfully aware we are living in a pandemic, and systemic racism has risen to the top of our awareness.”

Since we are in the middle of a pandemic and questions of racial equity are before us, said van Dijk, we have to ask, “‘How do we respond to this?’ It is hard to answer that question because we don’t know how this will turn out.”

But we can have hope, she said, especially when we find ways to be with one another in their sorrow.

Meanwhile, said van Dijk, chaplains are not immune to the trauma in our world today. “How are we responding during the pandemic? We also experience the exhaustion of having to minister at a time like this.”

Reflecting on the event, Roelofs said, “I was astonished at how the Holy Spirit moved throughout the training. It was tangible. Our chaplains were actively engaged, openly shared, and supported one another.”