The Stress of Being a Professional Chaplain

The Stress of Being a Professional Chaplain

David C. Johnson

Over 20 years ago, I read When Helping You is Hurting Me 1 by Carmen Renee Berry. It was a thin book out of the codependency genre; yet to me it spoke large volumes. Its subtitle was Escaping the Messiah Trap, and I had found myself in one. Since that time, I have attempted to monitor my need to be all things to all people, my desire to be fully engaged in everything that interests me, and my temptation to pick up whatever issues are falling apart around me. That in itself is a full-time job, and I still have to be a husband, son, father, grandfather and all-around super employee.

I am sure that I am not alone with this issue in this occupation of professional chaplaincy. I feel lucky to be a part of a larger chaplaincy staff. I realize from my time as a solo staff chaplain that being the only one of anything packs on the pressure to perform. Given the nature of our profession and that so many of us practice as a solo chaplains, it is no wonder that burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and depression are such well-known realities. To place those issues alongside the continual pressure to do more with less, the fear of downsizing, experiencing survivor guilt when there is a layoff and living with the reality that the precision of a machine is valued more than the presence of a person is difficult. One wonders how any chaplain stays motivated to continue to be a provider of care, concern and love.

We tout self-care yet often live out the Messiah trap. I think that is why attending the APC conference or state chaplains meeting is so important, not only for our professional lives but also our personal lives. The informal conversations we have are ways of debriefing and realizing we are not alone in the Messiah trap. The educational speakers and seminars can help us find ways to avoid the Messiah trap. The time away from our shops gives us the renewed sense of knowing that the institution will survive without us, and that is a good thing.

  Being a professional chaplain is stressful enough without living in the Messiah trap. Death, dying, chaos, pain, fear, uncertainty, anxiety, intensity, conflict and ethical deliberations are all part of an everyday menu, and worship becomes a guessing game as to what could or would be meaningful to those who attend. Into that place, we have chosen, for whatever reason, to place ourselves. It is for all these reasons that I am honored to be your colleague and your president.

  As professional chaplains, you attempt to “gird your loins” in hope and expectation of meeting the needs of patients, families or staff members in possibly their deepest and darkest moments. You bear no stethoscope, chart, test results or forms; you are equipped with only yourself as you encounter people where they are and not where you want them to be. You come honoring different traditions and belief systems. You come day or night. You come to meet a spiritual or emotional need that the person may or may not have yet identified. You are a treasure, and I am thankful for your ministries in whatever setting you serve…Just keep your eye on the Messiah trap.

( Rev. David C. Johnson DMin BCC is the assistant director for operations in the Pastoral Care and Education Department of Carolinas Medical Centers in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. He serves as President of Association of Professional Chaplains, Inc. (APC) and may be contacted at )

1.    Carmen Renee Berry, When Helping You Is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2003)
本文摘錄自APC e-News, May 2012 – Vol.14 No.3,蒙作者允許轉載。