Hospital Chaplaincy: “Hi-Touch”

hi-touch(This post was originally published in the National VA Chaplain Center’s Newsletter, Spirit of the Chaplaincy, Vol. 7, No. 2, November, 2016)

I want to honor a person who has touched the lives of thousands of people through the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. In honoring the Rev. Eugene “Gene” Reddel, who was my CPE supervisor from 2012-13, I don’t just want to sing his praises, but also share a critical lesson he taught that helped me transform from a proclamational pastor to an incarnational chaplain.

Gene had a profound impact on my life as a chaplain and as a person, as well as hundreds of other CPE students throughout his over 40-year career in the VA. I am now serving as a Clinical Chaplain and ACPE Supervisory Candidate at VA Pittsburgh, in part, because of Gene. Gene retired in 2015, and now several of us are capturing some of the “sayings” of this wise sage. Many of Gene’s sayings, of course, are not his own. They are the accumulated wisdom of his 50+ years in ministry.

As a learner, I have a tendency to adapt what I learn to my own understanding. One of Gene’s sayings was, “Hospital chaplaincy is hi-touch whereas medicine is hi-tech.” I understood immediately the contrast that Gene was pointing out. What Gene was trying to convey to us is that hi-touch does not necessarily mean physical touch, but a more sublime spiritual touch.

But I had a problem.

I was a talker. I originally understood my pastoral ministry as hi-talk, and not just the pastoral care recipient’s talk, but my own as well. I was very apt to tell a story, or, really, to sermonize my patients. One of my consulting supervisors assessed me as wanting to be a W.O.R.M.—a Wise Old Religious Man. However, I began to realize that my hi-talk ministry was not helping me connect spiritually with the Veterans. Chaplains use of words are still necessary and important, for prayer and spiritual assessments, but it was a real spiritual presence (hi-touch), not necessarily words, that I needed to be proficient in a clinical setting. So, I began to practice silence in my visits with Veterans.

To become a hi-touch chaplain, I had to grow my own sense of spiritual touch. I had to learn that silence does “speak” a clear word; and for me to hear I had to be totally present to the other. To do so meant that I had to be deeply “in touch” with myself if I was going to spiritually “touch” the lives of others.

Spiritual touch is what happens when little is said but much is experienced. People in deep friendships often say that with their close friends there is little need to talk. We just enjoy being in each other’s presence. This is how God touches us as well. God enjoys being in our presence. We can sit at the feet of God and touch Divine Mystery. Similarly, we can sit at each other’s feet and experience the God in each of us. Being hi-touch chaplains means developing the spiritual skill of touching soul-to-soul and heart-to-heart, of really hearing the inner-life or the spirit of those we care for.

Today, in my orientations to CPE students I’ll share, “The spirit of chaplaincy isn’t hi-tech or hi-talk, but hi-touch.” Some students smile when they hear it, or respond by saying ooh or ah. Though I am aware that using this saying might be playing into my wanting to be a W.O.R.M., it will always remind me of my supervisor, Gene Reddel, who helped me become an incarnational listener— a hi-touch chaplain.

© Paul Dordal, 2016

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