On Being a Quaker Chaplain and Educator

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A Call to Recognize Gifts and Get the Training to Use Them Well

Paula J. Teague is a Quaker chaplain and member of Wilmington Friends Meeting. In this post, she reflects on her struggles to discern how her ministry both contradicts and supports the Quaker way within our yearly meeting community. She concludes with the assertion that we need both to recognize Friends’ gifts and provide education for Friends to use their gifts well. Full disclosure: Paula is the mother of Zachary T. Dutton who presently serves our community as Associate Secretary for Program and Religious Life.

I think of myself as a Quaker chaplain. My spiritual journey brought me to this place.  I am most decidedly a “Friend” in my approach to ministry. I grew up in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, which has some unprogrammed and some programmed Meetings for Worship.  The meeting I grew up in had a pastor. My grandfather was a Quaker pastor. In that context, I learned about how one’s gifts for ministry could be honed into a leadership role. At the same time, I recognized the wisdom of nurturing the gifts of all for ministry. At the age of 22, I was recorded for ministry by the Yearly Meeting after a two year process of discernment with a group of Friends.

I am also professionally educated to function as a chaplain and educator. I have both a master’s degree from the Earlham School of Religion and a doctoral degree focused on developing others’ professional ministry skills. I am certified by two national organizations: The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education and the Association of Professional Chaplains. I direct the programs of spiritual care and education at Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore, Maryland.

Becoming a Quaker chaplain—first with recognition from the Yearly Meeting followed by professional education—was not the process for most ministers in other traditions. In most faith groups there were requirements for education and service before even being considered for ordination. I celebrated this pivotal difference for Friends. Our primary initial requirement was and remains the recognition of one’s gifts outwardly expressed.

Following recording for ministry, I then went about making sure I was as well prepared to serve as I could be. Again and again, it seemed that my journey had an inner leading—a sense I could both nurture and follow. On one occasion, I was ending a two year chaplaincy residency in order to be certified to teach spiritual care to others. I was sitting in Birmingham Friends Meeting (AL), which then met in the homes of its members. I felt very concerned about my next steps without an employment option. I sat in a place of anxiety and dread, questioning my choices to pursue my calling, when a feeling of love came over me. My experience mirrors what George Fox described as “an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” In times of stress, I can go back to that place within—I think of it as my God place—and feel peace. I knew, wordlessly, that I was “called” to ministry. I knew that everything would be OK. I could trust that inner sense. I remember crying with relief.  Friends in Birmingham supported my journey and joined me on the twists and turns.  Following a leading was part of the process of being in the community of Friends.

I was able to begin my ministry in a role providing spiritual care in a hospice organization. I was present to those on the last parts of their journey and teaching about how to best care for them spiritually. My education and certification prepared me. My spiritual journey blessed me!

When our family moved to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, I was much less open about my professional background for ministry, even though I was employed by Catholic health care organizations in Philadelphia as a chaplain educator. I trusted my spiritual journey and determined that any professional education or training was superfluous. It was important simply to be in community and demonstrate care. I decided not to overtly share either my role, education or training. I felt that, if it were important to Friends, then eventually I would be given openings for such to be known about me.

Over our twenty years in PYM, there have been opportunities for workshops for educating or situations that called for spiritual caring. I remember an event at Buckingham Friends when a child died unexpectedly. I was called in the early morning and asked “what can we do?”  From my work in hospice and medical institutions, I could help with understanding grief, reassuring Friends about listening and responding with care, letting go of the worry about “saying something wrong.”

As I think now about this decision not to share so much about my professional background, it leads me to a question about whether I missed opportunities to share my gifts or knowledge.   Self-promotion is too shallow as a frame for this question. The question is really whether I have responded to the leadings of the spirit in all my dealings?  Not always.

A foundation of my ministry as a chaplain and educator is that all who come for training as spiritual care providers have their gifts—some natural and some nurtured talents. All who come for training can add to their repertoire of expertise and skill, even transforming old wounds and pain into empathetic connection.

Could we do more to recognize those among us who have professional training which has enhanced their gifts to serve? I believe that we can balance the Friends testimonies that all among us are called to be in direct relationship with the Holy and live our lives in service using our gifts with the reality that education and training can create a stronger identity and more effective service.

Gifts for ministry need not set Friends apart to fashion distant spiritual experiences or create dogmatic directives. Gifts for ministry can be nurtured and supported among us. Let us encourage Friends to support their inner leadings for service with education, training and certification.