We are pleased to feature this month GTF alumna, The Rev. Dr. Jo Jensen. In 2013, Dr. Jensen earned the Doctor of Ministry at the Graduate Theological Foundation. For her outstanding doctoral project, “The Be-Attitudes of Chaplaincy,” (now a new book), she was also awarded that year the Dorothy Day Prize in Pastoral Care and Counseling by the GTF. Thank you to Dr. Jensen for sharing her experiences in writing and chaplaincy with us in this recent interview below:
GTF: Your new book, The Be-Attitudes of Chaplaincy, is based upon your Doctor of Ministry Project completed as a Graduate Theological Foundation student. How did you approach the writing of the text, and what motivated you to create a work to help those interested or already working in the field?
Rev. Jo Jensen: I would like to address the second part of your question first. When I was exploring what I believed to be my call to chaplaincy, I found very little experiential information on the topic, and even less viable data on the steps required to achieve board certification. While I hope The Be-Attitudes of Chaplaincy will provide dialogue fodder for current chaplains, I also feel strongly that anyone drawn to this ministry will benefit from glimpses of the day-to-day experiences of someone who is actively involved in the ministry of being a chaplain. Incorporation of the text into the curriculum of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was also a suggestion from my former CPE supervisor.
Writing this book began as an outflow from the age-old concept of mind-mapping. Discussions with my doctoral project consultant, Dr. Ann-Marie Neale, and a continuous stream of ideas, lead to myriad one-word notations on an easel tablet that took up residency on my dining room table. Without editing my thoughts, I jotted down every word or phrase related to chaplaincy that came to mind. Within days, I detected a pattern to the words and phrases on the page. Nine of the words became the focus for each of nine chapters. Many salient phrases served as prompts for selection of the patient narratives I recounted. Then it became my discipline to write every morning from 4:30-6:30 before leaving to go do the daily work of chaplaincy.
Photography is one of my self-care routines, so including a visual depiction (photograph) of each be-attitude, was a way I could inspire current and aspiring chaplains to integrate self-care into their own daily routines. I also enjoy creating poems and other writings by utilizing various fonts. When I wrote the first prayer combining 2 different fonts, Dr. Neale noticed the words of each font created separate prayers. She encouraged me to pursue that structure throughout. It was a great idea!
In addition to listening deeply, a significant aspect of chaplain ministry is learning to ask reflective rather than information-seeking questions. Becoming proficient at that skill requires considerable self-reflection. Adding relevant, reflective questions to the end of each chapter was tantamount to doing the homework of becoming a chaplain.
GTF: In your book you discuss your friend, Judy, and her concept of “living into death.” Could you elaborate on this concept and how it has influenced you in working with oncology patients?
Rev. Jo Jensen: Judy knew that dying is something we will all face. She actually felt that having time to prepare and say good-bye were the gifts of cancer. Judy used the last months of her life making meaning in large and small ways, one of which was helping others be comfortable with the topic of mortality. Sitting with Judy in the what next chair was enlightening as I watched, listened, and learned about finding meaning in the throes of adversity. In the process, I also discovered and developed my own internal comfort zone with death talk. Of course, at the time of accompanying Judy on her journey into the unknown, I was unaware that she would be the first of many I would be privileged to walk alongside.
The lessons of finding/making meaning after a diagnosis of cancer have significantly informed my ministry. Not every patient confronts their diagnosis/prognosis or impending death with the spiritual and emotional maturity Judy demonstrated; however, every patient deserves dignity and grace, regardless of where they are on the path. Some choose, with every fiber of their being, a path of resistance. Others, like Judy, choose a path of acceptance. Some step onto one path for a time and later shift to the other. Neither path is good, better, or worse. Judy understood this truth and taught me (without saying as much) how to be comfortable, as an individual sojourner, as well as with patients whose dance into the unknown may be one that zigzags.
GTF: What have you found to be the most effective tools and skills you have brought to, or developed during, your work, particularly with regard to serving people of different faith traditions?
Rev. Jo Jensen: Learning about the variety of cultures, religions and faith traditions is a skill every chaplain needs to hone. In doing so, we enjoy a shared respect for differences and discover abundant similarities. Understanding religious rituals important to people of different faiths is essential to the practice of chaplaincy, during a patient’s illness and particularly at the time of death. When a patient dies, everyone, including loved ones, look to the chaplain for direction on what to do next. There is no time to pick up a reference book to quickly learn which religious traditions dictate that a family member bathes the deceased, or how to get a body released to the family in lieu of a mortuary, or that burial must occur by sundown on the third day. As chaplains, we must be knowledgeable and develop cultural sensitivity.
Being a non-judgmental, non-anxious presence in the midst of chaos has certainly served me well. Hearing the stories, concerns, fears, and anxieties beneath the spoken words is a skill that takes time to develop, which is one of the reasons I migrated toward oncology. Being an oncology chaplain is relational. I often meet people when they are in white-hot grief after initial diagnosis, and then accompany them throughout treatment to remission, or possibly death. Regardless of duration, this span of time allows people of every faith or no particular faith, to reflect on what’s important to them. Patients and family members frequently learn that healing and curing are entirely different notions. I am humbled when permitted to be an instrument of spiritual and emotional healing so that preventable suffering does not seep into and taint future generations of a family.
In 2013, Dr. Jensen was ordained in the United Church of Christ, an event about which she wrote for the GTF blog in December of that year. Visit her guest post to see photos from the event and to read about her experience.