Is there any word from the Lord?

The role of the Bible in pastoral care and chaplaincy training.

Julia C. S. Vernon serves as chaplain at Holy Cross Hospital, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Back in 1950 when Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, one of the movement's founders, Anton Boisen, stated: "This movement has no new gospel to proclaim: we are not seeking to introduce anything into the theological curriculum beyond a new approach to some ancient problems. We are trying, rather, to call attention back to the central task of the church, that of saving souls, and to the central problem of theology, that of sin and salvation. What is new is the attempt to begin with the study of the living human document rather than with books and to focus attention upon those who are grappling desperately with the issues of spiritual life and death."1

CPE's rejection of the traditional book-centered approach to learning in favor of the person-centered approach has succeeded in opening the world of humanness to ministers. As a result, CPE students truly learn from one an other and from their patients the spiritual needs and frameworks of people, and discover that communication occurs in myriad ways.

The person-centered approach of clinical pastoral care has given other benefits as well. There is an heightened ministerial sensitivity to the needs and spiritual context of those from vastly different faith traditions. Communication has become possible with large segments of society that can never be reached by traditional means. The chaplain can minister even as Christ did with a measure of love and empathy for people in their natural context. The study of and interaction with the "human document" fit ministers and laity alike to "get down in the muck" where people really live and suffer. In the process, the CPE trained chaplain can effectively portray Jesus as the lover of people.

While the emphasis on the human document has resulted in appreciable benefits to clinical ministry, there has also come a tragic loss. The discarding of books as primary learning tools has been accompanied by varying degrees of rejection of the Book as the primary tool of a healthy life and ministry. Be cause of the neglect of the Bible, the issues of sin and salvation that Boisen speaks about are also slipping into a limbo reserved for non-issues.

True, the role of the Bible needs to be different in hospital and other crisis/ institutional ministries than in traditional ministry. Ellen White cautioned: "Our peculiar faith should not be discussed with patients. Their minds should not be unnecessarily excited upon subjects wherein we differ, unless they them selves desire it; and then great caution should be observed not to agitate the mind by urging upon them our peculiar faith." 2 Undoubtedly the sickroom is an inappropriate environment for heavy doctrinal instruction or proselytizing. But does it mean that the sickroom is an inappropriate place for direct Bible communication?

Many ministers, including Seventh-day Adventists, sense a profound call to address the basic issues of sin and salvation in clinical environments—and to address them with the Bible. Even in "mundane" chaplaincy tasks such as helping patients to find coping tools, providing a healthy beginning to the grief process, and trying to bring peace and comfort to the distressed many ministers sense an urgency to base their ministry openly in the Bible, sharing its wisdom, comfort, and insights directly with the patient.

Along with her caution, Ellen White also affirms the appropriateness of Bible sharing. "The religion of Christ is not to be placed in the background and its holy principles laid down to meet the approval of any class, however popular. If the standard of truth and holiness is lowered, the design of God will not then be carried out.... There is an abundance to dwell upon in regard to Bible religion." 3

However, in today' s chaplaincy training programs, Bible ministry has fallen in disrepute. Ministers who have under gone training in programs where the Bible has had no central role have ex pressed to me their pain in words such as: "Talking about the Bible was off-limits." "Whenever I referred directly to the Bible, my peers [and/or supervisor] crucified me." "My group would ask me what I believed and why. When I quoted Scripture in my answers, they would be angry at me." "I felt very intimidated every time I mentioned my reliance on the Bible." "When I quoted the scriptures to my patients, I was severely censured." "I was under pressure to abandon my faith in the Bible and my use of it in ministry."

Were all these people the kind who pound people over the head with Scripture? If so, perhaps the system was merely trying to instill perspective and tolerance. But no. Only one of them remotely fit that description. The ministers were sensitive, filled with empathy for the needs and beliefs of others, skilled in bringing out appropriate treasures from the Bible to enrich and comfort sufferers. Tragically, they all had one experience in common. They all received the same message from their various CPE units: the Bible is irrelevant, offensive, and grossly inappropriate for use in modern pastoral care. Even more tragically, some of them bought into that idea, and left their Bibles behind.

The words of Anton Boisen evoke a dream of training ministers by contact with the living documents. The aim is to employ the principles and tools of the Bible in a new way in order to meet the Bible-mandated goals in the struggle with the Bible-defined issues. But that is not happening, if the feedback I'm receiving is accurate. Indeed, in some cases the opposite is taking place. If this is so, we need to find out why, and decide whether or not this is the direction Seventh-day Adventist ministers of tomorrow need to go in order to be fitted for this special ministry.

The vital interplay

Part of the answer lies in the vital interplay between two aspects of gospel ministry: diakonia (loving acts) and kerygma (verbal proclamation). Ideally, both come together, reinforcing and complementing each other. In hospital chaplaincy, which is the primary con text for CPE and similar programs, diakonia is predominant. The hospital context provides more opportunities for loving acts, especially the act of "being with" the patient, than it does for traditional verbal proclamation of God's Word. Naturally, the more conspicuous art comes to assume the larger share of approval.

Diakonia also receives much more educational emphasis. It is often the area in which students are least skilled. We know how to do good deeds on a large scale, but many of us have not developed or refined the hidden, subtle skills of empathy—to be with and to encourage others to trust and communicate. Thus, pastoral care training pro grams are slanted to educate us and refine our skills in these areas.

Sadly enough, another reason that diakonia skills get overemphasis is our love of kerygma. We may come to CPE with a high degree of interest and skills in kerygma, especially if we are from a "basic Bible" tradition. In order to en sure that we do not get carried away by inappropriate preachiness, argumentativeness, and doctrinal fine-tuning in our dealing with patients, programs emphasizing diakonia may be stressed. This compensation can become overcompensation, leading to the danger of the loss of kerygma from the language of pastoral care.

Other reasons for suppressing Bible proclamation include the varying traditions of CPE instructors and how they view the Bible; the pressure exerted by peers and the hierarchy who view Scripture proclamation with disfavor; and efforts to find a neutral way to minister to those who do not hold favorable views of the Bible. No matter what the cause, the result is increasingly a Zedekiah-like reaction to the Bible within the chaplaincy training community.

A Zedekiah complex?

Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah be cause his proclamation of the Word was unpopular, out of touch with current theory, and different from what people hoped to hear. King Zedekiah, however, had a glimmer of belief in that kerygma. It was enough for him to bring Jeremiah secretly out of the prison and ask him, "Is there any word from the Lord?" (Jer. 37:17). But the Word was still the same, still at odds with popular wisdom, and so Jeremiah was returned to the prison.

In training our ministers, we start them off with the Bible, teaching them to acknowledge it as the one and only reliable guide. Next, we send them off into an atmosphere where the Word is imprisoned for its lack of popularity, dis counted as inappropriate or unreliable. When we send for our ministers again, wanting them to answer the cry of soul-wounded people who in some way are asking "Is there any word from the Lord?" what will their response be? Will they still be competent and willing to minister in the form of kerygma, to communicate the undiluted Word of God? Or will they only give the ministry of diakonia and leave the eternally vital question unanswered? While loving deeds are truly a word from God and constitute a living epistle, often only a firm "Thus says the Lord" will answer the most painful needs of human beings in, as Boisen said, "the central task of the church, that of saving souls." Only the Word will engage the central problems of "sin and salvation."

Ministers and students progressing through the chaplaincy phase of their education are not neutral or unaffected by the discounting of the Word that they receive in their programs. Some grow under the pressure. They cling to the Word and answer, "I know whom I have believed." Like Peter, they remain ready to give a Bible answer to everyone who inquires of them (1 Peter 3:15). Sadly, others absorb the material set before them, and come away as great doers, great pastoral listeners, great "be-withers," but without any abiding confidence in the authenticity of the Bible as the preeminent authority of and tool in pastoral care.

If a direct, practical, Bible-based atmosphere is vanishing from existing chaplaincy programs, we as a people need to reexamine our use of these programs. We need to weigh the gains and losses they offer on an eternal scale. Our students, the shepherds and spiritual healers of tomorrow's flock, may learn marvelous skills of listening, communicating, empathizing, and relating to those from other faiths; but if in the process they lose the wonder, awe, and trust of the Word of God, then we have lost everything. It is time to bring Seventh-day Adventist chaplaincy training back into communion with the life-and-death issues of a biblical gospel.

1 Quoted in Lawrence E. Hoist, ed., Hospital
Ministry: The Role of the Chaplain Today (New
York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 1985), p. 16. (Italics

2 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health (Moun
tain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1951),
p. 245.

3 Ibid.

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Julia C. S. Vernon serves as chaplain at Holy Cross Hospital, Salt Lake City, Utah.

May 1993

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