I got a call once, to go to the scene of a death in the home hospice program. The home hospice program brings hospice care to a patient wherever the patient happens to reside. In this case, the patient lived in one of those retirement complexes that offers graduated levels of care, all the way from independent apartments through assisted living to a skilled nursing facility. These can be wonderful since residents don't have to completely leave their friends and support relationships when they find themselves in need of more care.
So I agreed to meet the hospice nurse at the complex. When I got there, I found a gentleman in white shirt, tie, slacks, sport jacket, wearing an ID that identified him as a chaplain from the complex itself. I hadn't known the complex had a chaplain or had called a chaplain; we introduced ourselves and the chaplain explained he lived in the apartments, was a retired pastor, and was one of the chaplains available to all the residents at the complex.
There are a number of clear advantages and wonderful possibilities about the arrangement this complex has, having retired pastors available for the spiritual needs of their fellow residents. Unfortunately, none of those advantages was in evidence in the situation I describe. This particular chaplain, while well-intentioned, was very hard of hearing, did not know the deceased or the family, and had a skill set that relied almost exclusively on saying prayers and reading Christian scripture.
The family, consisting of a heartbroken spouse and a number of supporting relatives, arrived at the scene. They'd been visiting the deceased most of the day and really had not expected death to come that evening, so they were shocked and regretful at having left, in addition to heartbroken over the death. The chaplain and I began to talk with them; it soon became apparent that the family was in no shape to cope with the repeated questions owing to the chaplain's hearing problems. (The spouse would introduce an adult child to the two of us, and the chaplain would then ask something like, "And what is the relationship between you two? Is she your daughter?") The chaplain optimistically mentioned prayers and scripture; a lot was going on at the moment but it did not escape my notice that the family, without a single exception, ignored the suggestion.
I had to meet with the hospice nurse briefly and on my return I noticed the family seemed even more restive. It devolved that the chaplain had announced he would take the family to view their loved one, and the family wasn't sure they wanted to do this at all, and REALLY didn't want to do this until one last family member arrived. I assured them there was no hurry and no rules, they could do exactly what they wanted. The chaplain interjected that now we would say prayers and read scripture. I caught a desperate glance from one family member. It seemed to say, "DO something about this man, or I can't promise I'll stay polite." I interjected that it didn't seem that prayers and scripture sounded comforting, and perhaps the family would just like to remember their loved one while waiting for that last person to arrive. The desperate one jumped on that suggestion as if it was a winning Powerball ticket, but of course the chaplain then asked, "Do you have a church?" It devolved that the family really is not religious at all. Fine by me. Finally the last relative arrived and the spouse wanted to go see the deceased. I said, "I can walk you back to the room so you can have some family time." The chaplain, perhaps not having heard, said, "I'll go with you." We marched ourselves to the room and I said, "If you need anything at all, I'll be in the lobby where we were sitting," and firmly closed the door, leaving the family inside and the chaplain and me in the hallway. I wish I'd had a brain in my head; if I had, I'd have invited him to come with me and tell me about his ministry. I didn't have a brain in my head, so he stationed himself roughly three inches from the door of the room.
Shortly after, the hospice nurse asked me to come back with her while she explained some logistics to the family. We went back, and to my horror, the room door was open and the chaplain inside. When we entered, I caught another desperate glance from the same family member who'd silently begged for help earlier... We said what we'd come to say; the chaplain was standing there with a look of impending prayers and scripture. This time I decided not to mince words. I asked the family if they'd like a little time alone, AS A FAMILY, and the desperate one leaped on the suggestion as if he'd seen a second winning Powerball ticket, and we escorted the chaplain out. This time, at last, he got the hint and decided he'd return to his own apartment, as long as the hospice nurse and I agreed to stay as long as the family might need us. We thanked him for coming, and I for one WATCHED HIM LEAVE. The nurse and I went back, I to the lobby and the nurse back to the nurse's station to handle the required procedures. The family took some time and then, assured that there was nothing at all that they needed to do, took their departure.
Encounters like this one are why a lot of folks are suspicious as can be about chaplains. A lot of folks have met "religious types" who aren't sensitive, who have a religious agenda, who insist on inserting themselves into a family in ways that are not helpful. There's a lot of baggage that goes with the word "chaplain" and all of these things are part of that baggage. To be sure there are families whose religious values match those of that chaplain who might have found his presence reassuring. Unfortunately, the family we were there to see was not such a family, and the chaplain did not have the ability to shift tactics to a different way of support. I am guessing that he also had a bit of judgment, a bit of feeling that the family "should" have religious values more like his, and a bit of hope that he could steer them in what felt to him like an appropriate direction. That might have been his job as a pastor, but it's not the work of chaplaincy, which is to be present to the family as they are, to offer what they need if you happen to have it, or find the right person if you can't do what they need. And a ministry of presence sometimes means having the sensitivity to realize that you need to get the h--l out of there and leave the family alone.