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A Ministry of Presence


Jocelyn Shaw, 27-year-old chaplain at Florida Hospital for Children, talks about "being" rather than advising; ministering to people with a spectrum of beliefs; supporting weeping nurses; and the family tragedy that led her to pursue the career of chaplain.

You are a chaplain at Florida Hospital for Children. How long have you worked as a chaplain? Do you work regular hours, or do you get called in the middle of the night?

In my new role as Senior Chaplain for Florida Hospital for Children, I minister to all areas of Florida Hospital for Children including Bone Marrow Transplant, Oncology, Cardiac Intensive Care, Pediatric Intensive Care, Medical Surgical Units, Emergency Center, and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. 

Prior to my new role, I primarily cared for staff, patients, and families of the NICU and the Women’s Hospital. 

When I was a resident, a few years back, we worked all shifts. We answered calls in the middle of the night, weekends, evenings, and early mornings. Our chaplain team continues to provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since graduating from residency and receiving my Master of Divinity Degree, I now have residents and interns who cover these shifts most of the time (We joke that each student must do their time). 

Recently, during Hurricane Irma, I did 36 hours in the hospital as I covered my hospital during the lockdown period. There’s always the opportunity to cover these odd shifts!

What do you love about your job?

There are two things that I can boil it down to as I try and express what I love about my job. I have been called to “journey” with the patient  Much like Jesus journeyed with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, I seek to accompany the patient/family in their journey. It is less about advice giving and more about trying to provide the ministry of presence in how I build trust, rapport, and gain the “right” to walk alongside someone. 

First, I love what I do because there are times when I am sitting with a family/patient, invited to hear their story and I sense the “burning bush” with us in the room — I realize I am on “Holy Ground” (as Moses might have experienced this moment). 

The second reason that I love what I do is when I see the realization on the family member or patient’s face when they realize that I am there completely focused on them and not on my own agenda (to get to this place takes a lot of training and self-evaluative work within our Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, process). This is when I hope they truly feel the love that Jesus Himself is offering to them, just as if He was physically standing before them listening to their story. 

You must see incredible tragedy and heartbreak in your job. The death of any loved one is terribly sad, but the death of an infant must be soul-crushing for the parents. How are you able to find the words to help them? How are you able to keep going every day yourself, seeing so much pain and suffering?

I do see a lot of tragedy and death. I average one to two deaths a week in my Children’s Hospital. 

One of Chaplaincy’s 101 training moments is that it is less about what to say or what to do and more about “being.” Again, to understand this process and how it actually works in the moment takes time. We learn much more like this during our residency program (We go through a very difficult and rigorous training process in which we evaluate this and learn how better to “be”). 

This does not necessarily mean that we don’t say anything at all. A lot of what we are doing is making sure that, in the anxiety of the moment, the words we share are not to comfort our own anxiety but that the words we share are actually speaking to the person’s needs. For example, many people in crisis are looking for the permission to be in the crisis. They are looking for the permission to cry. I seek often to affirm pain and acknowledge it. They are looking for a safe space to emote and grieve. Chaplains, at times, are the grief sustainers. In fact, I try not to rush handing a tissue box to a person crying because in some moments it can tell a person unconsciously that “I don’t want to see your tears.” What they may need instead is a person who can be comfortable enough to sit with them in their grief, not to yank them out of it. In this, grief is heard, understood, and named. This gives them the permission and encouragement to find within themselves the courage to begin journeying forward. 

One of the ways that I can keep going is that I believe that God, first and foremost, has called me to this work. I believe He is my Sustainer. I believe God also expects me to use the tools He gave me. For example, I have someone whom I go talk to on a regular basis for maintenance and self-care. I also have a couple of mentors with whom I connect. The biggest asset I have is my best friend that Jesus gave me: my husband Martin Shaw. That man is my gem, and God allowed us the privilege of journeying through this thing called life together. He is my biggest supporter, friend, and just plain genius. God gave him to me, and he is one of the biggest reasons I can do the job I do every day. He is my strongest supporter and confidant. He is proud of the work I do and my biggest fan, and I am his.

Is this the most challenging part of your job?

The death and tragedy is not the most challenging part of my job. I was trained to be in these moments. The crisis is the world I understand well, partly because of my own story dealing with pain and crisis in my youth. 

The most challenging thing about my job is that it is poorly understood. My job and my ministry entails being a professional in providing compassion and understanding to all those I encounter. After providing this all day every day, who is my chaplain? Most people believe we are slot-machine-prayer-givers. 

Prayer is a tool we use when we do our spiritual assessment of a person, which can be helpful. We provide psychosocial, emotional and spiritual support, and this can look different, depending on the person and their need. For example, I once spent 45 minutes with a parent who was an atheist and whose son was being hospitalized for a severe cardiac threat. Most wonder how a chaplain can provide any support to an atheist, but in fact we are trained to be able to offer this support during illness, crisis, and tragedy to anyone and everyone, including an atheist. Acknowledging that this individual is a person, knowing that they are a child of God as well, is cause for a chaplain to provide them emotional and spiritual support. 

The role of the chaplain is misunderstood and, therefore, can be quite lonely. This is probably the hardest thing about the job. 

I have gloved up and helped a nurse clean the blood coming from a baby after death so that the baby’s mom could hold her child in her arms once more before saying goodbye. I have held the nurse who cried profusely after the loss of a baby she cared for for almost a year.

A chaplain can and should always be ready to provide prayer and/or scripture if the time calls for it, but we do offer so much more. 

Isn’t it a very difficult thing to meet the needs of people with such a great spectrum of religious beliefs and tailor your remarks accordingly, including to the atheists you mention?

This can be difficult, but not usually as we are trained well during our CPE journey in this experience. Chaplains must be able to actively listen — consistently and constantly. Chaplains have to meet cultural and religious competencies. It is in this process that we learn how to tailor our remarks to different families. 

It is not just a matter of religious beliefs, although that is a part of it, but also cultural beliefs as well. I am there to journey with them and be present with them for a time. Many times, we look for things we can connect on and even agree with, knowing that we do not have to speak to the things we disagree with.

I understand that you don't shy away from the tough assignments — perhaps even seek them out. Why?

No, I do not shy away from these assignments. Every person is a child of God, and I believe I have been called to be with people in moments of desperation and pain. I believe we have come to a place in society where people are so saturated with technology that they they often distance themselves from true community. There is still something to being completely present, physically in person with another individual in a moment in which tragedy strikes. 

It is in these moments of life crisis when I believe there are doors and opportunities for a person/chaplain to appropriately come in and provide a ministry of presence. Being comfortable with pain, hurt, and tragedy (not ignoring, but even acknowledging their own anxiety) can allow the chaplain to offer this appropriate support and even “extend the Healing Ministry of Christ” without “fixing” or “doing” anything, but simply by just being and loving.

What made you want to become a chaplain? I believe you studied at Andrews University and before that at Southern Adventist University? When did you decide on your career path?

I was 14 years old when I knew for sure I wanted to be a hospital chaplain. The story is long, but it came after experiencing a close family member suddenly go into cardiac arrest in front of me while playing outside at a family get-together. My dear uncle and I were close.

I still remember hearing him fall and turning to see him struggling for air. In fact, he had stayed outside with me to play basketball because everyone else wanted to go inside. I screamed for help, and my mom came running with my aunt and cousins. My mother administered CPR. After calling 911 and waiting for the ambulance to come, we all rushed to the hospital to await any news. 

Prior to this event, my grandmother had died from cancer. Not long later, a second uncle died after an accident on the job, around the same age (late 40s/early 50s). 

These experiences, amid some other life issues, led me to critically reflect and ask the bigger existential questions about God early on. 

I believed, after going to church with my family and hearing what was meant to be helpful advice (but in fact only hurt my mom), that maybe there was a better way to support people emotionally and spiritually. It was then that I began my journey toward becoming a chaplain.

Can you tell us about one day on the job, or one particular experience, that stood out to you?

There is one experience that I will never forget. A baby who had been in our NICU for six months or so — and had undergone many difficult surgeries — began to decline rapidly. It was apparent to us that the baby was not doing well, what we call “actively dying” in health care. (As always, the family was informed of every step along the way.) 

As the baby started to decline, the family were all around. The next morning, I happened to be going to the hospital early, partly to check in on them. As I was pulling into the garage, I got the call that I was needed as soon as possible and to head right up to the unit. I went upstairs to check in on the family and found out that extended family had already arrived. 

I had become very well acquainted with this family, as you can imagine, as they were there for so long. They wanted me to offer a prayer once the last few family members arrived. In the interim, I was checking in on the different family members. It was hard; anticipatory grief was thick among the family. 

Two nurses were attending to the baby, two RTs (respiratory therapists), and the physician who had interrupted his normal patient rounds in order to be present. We all started watching and waiting. The MD did one of the most gracious things that I am witness to from time to time in the hospital; he offered mom the option “to hold…” which essentially gives her a chance to “be mom” one more time. Mom and dad both liked the idea, so mom took her seat and got ready to hold her baby, all the lines coming out of the baby and the surgery site still being protected. It was a very careful process, but the nurse began to carefully gather the baby up in her arms and begin to turn towards mom. Mom was sitting in the chair, physically lower than the nurse, since the nurse was standing. When the nurse had turned part way, she paused for a moment. I was standing adjacent to mom and right next to the nurse as I looked up to see why the nurse was stopping. She wore glasses and had begun to cry, hard. Her glasses had fogged up and were sliding down her face; she couldn’t see. She looked a bit frantic, so I then quickly turned, grabbed some tissues and wiped her tears from her face (all without mom noticing), put her glasses back on her face, and then stood back again. The nurse lipped the words “thank you.” She proceeded to put the baby in the mom’s arms. 

I have the utmost admiration for what you do every day. I can’t even begin to imagine. These kinds of experiences must be more frequent than you would wish for. But what do you spend most of your day doing?

My days look different depending on the day. I will try and give a recap as to what it can be.  

It’s sitting on the floor with a mother who can’t stop shaking because her 18-year-old “baby” just died from cancer. 

It’s holding a nurse after she did everything she could after a NICU baby coded and died. 

It’s gloving up and helping to clean the blood that won’t stop coming from the uncapped line and helping the RN who was left to deal with mom’s shock, anger, and grief. 

It’s not running from the fire, but running to it, and knowing which fire is burning hotter and quicker and which to put out first. 

It’s answering administrative, chaplain student, pastoral care, marketing, and doctors' emails in between the calls and the emergencies. 

It’s recovery work. 

It’s trying to not take on too much and still answer when one of my medical directors asks me to help host a debriefing while attempting to rebuild trust between the doctors and families when there are misunderstandings. 

It’s also trying to be present and available when asked by someone to see a patient, to still be available and completely emotionally present after all of that. 

Each day is different and completely new in its own way. 

I believe you were with the police officers who informed some of the families that their loved ones were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting — is that right? What was that like?

Yes, it was only my second week of work. As I arrived at the hospital at 7:30am, three Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents asked me and two other chaplains to accompany them to the homes of victims to inform their families. As I told WKMG, the local news station that interviewed me about this, the raw emotion affected everyone. I will never forget the pain of that family we visited.

Florida Hospital is a large hospital system. How many chaplain colleagues do you have? Do you all work together and support each other? What is it like working for Florida Hospital?

I work with an incredible team of thirteen chaplains, all connected to the Orlando campus. We also have five resident chaplains (who are in training), two of whom are assigned to the Children’s Hospital. 

We are a large team assigned to our various areas.

There have been many times where my colleagues come to help in my area, and I have answered calls on the adult floors. We are striving to give the best we have and continue to work toward developing what healthcare and spirituality means in today’s culture. 

They are a brilliant group, and it is an honor to sit with them and collaborate, when given the opportunity. Walking through the units of Florida Hospital and working with our teams is an incredible experience. I will refer again to that “burning bush” feeling. While not every second is like this, if you look for it, these moments happen quite frequently. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your own family?

My grandparents and parents both live here in Orlando. My husband is from the panhandle of Florida, and he currently works at Adventist University of Health Sciences. I have one sister who teaches Spanish at a high school. My husband and I look forward to growing our family, and I am so grateful for our two families who support us beyond measure. 

Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years? Are you presently involved in other work or projects besides your full-time job as a chaplain?

I try to live in the moment, as clichéd as that may sound. We believe we are where God wants us to be, knowing that we should always be willing to walk through the doors that God leads us to. But for now we are certain that this is where He wants us and are trusting the decisions and choices that led us here.


Image Credit: Jocelyn Shaw

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