One Diocese blog: “Not just death and religion”

Published: Monday April 4, 2022

John Thompson head and shoulders image - a man in a blue checked shirt and glassesThe Revd John Thompson, Lead Chaplain in the Department of Spiritual Care for Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust shares his views on his calling and his ministry in our #OneDiocese blog.

“One of the challenges for a hospital chaplain is that everyone thinks it’s all about death and religion.

“So much so that we advise staff never to ask a patient if they would like to see a chaplain in those words, as the response is likely to be ‘Am I that bad?’ There’s no such thing as a typical week, but my job embraces just about every part of hospital life, from equality issues to ethics; teaching nurses, to recording ‘staff wellbeing’ podcasts.  And a good deal of supporting patients, their families and staff in between.  And quite often it is about dying and facing other enormous challenges.  And, sometimes, it is about religion.  Religion is, of course, only one way that people express their spirituality – I think the NHS term ‘Spiritual Care’ is actually a good description of what we do.

“I never set out to be a chaplain.  When I made a Christian commitment as a 14-year old I knew I had to become a preacher, and became a Methodist lay preacher before I was 21. When I was later ordained I imagined I would be in local church ministry forever. Thirty-three years later, and with a change of denomination, I’ve managed 15 years in church leadership, but have also been a chaplain to a prison and a secure unit for teenagers.  I ran a sub-post office for 8 years in the middle,  doing Alpha courses, Carol services and funerals for customers.  It sometimes looks a bit random – but I have learnt that in every setting in which God places us, he prepares us for the next. The Christian life is a life of apprenticeship, and the thread that runs through all this is the desire to make Christ known.   I live in Stonehouse and have been heavily involved in establishing ‘The Fig Tree’ – a project that builds on many of these experiences – creating a place of welcome and sanctuary at the heart of the town.

“Church can be great – my spiritual home was St Michael-le-Belfry in York at the time of David Watson, and I learnt a lot about faith sharing when leading teams with the ‘Share Jesus’ organisation – but increasingly our cherished ways don’t work with those who view the church with suspicion and seek their spiritual understanding in other ways.  The great miracle of Pentecost was the declaration ‘They’re speaking my language!’ – a skill God’s people need to learn again today.

“In the NHS we talk about ‘patient-centred care’.  Patients are vulnerable, and my way of being a Christian might not be helpful, even for another Christian. So our starting point always has to be the expressed needs of the person in front of us – we engage with their spiritual experience, hopes and fears, and don’t try to impose our own.  Christians sometimes seem obsessed with words and formulae and think too little about the very real presence of Jesus.

“This is chaplaincy’s gift to the Church: sharing the compassion of God without favour amongst those who are hurting, enabling them to respond to a love that is greater than all of us.  And if God’s spirit really is within us, that means that sometimes all we have to do is be there.”


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