Sounds #Divine: Hospital Chaplain

Joo is a Hospital Chaplain in NYC.


Name: Joo Young Hong

Age: 41

College & major: Barnard College, environmental science & anthropology

Graduate school & concentration: Union Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity, Psych and Religion

Past jobs: banquet server, canvasser for an environmental organization, college telefund caller, rep for a non-profit, church office manager, instructor for individuals with learning disabilities…

Current occupation: Hospital Chaplain

How did you become involved in pastoral care? Is that why you originally studied theology? I came to seminary unsure of what I was going to do. One of the reasons I chose my seminary was because of its program in Psych and Religion. I thought at the time that maybe I wanted to become a psychotherapist/licensed pastoral counselor. I knew I did not want to become a pastor in a church setting.

The Psych and Religion program encourages students in their program to take a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) which I did at a local hospital in the summer after my first year. That was when I was introduced to the field of hospital chaplaincy, and I was hooked.

What is it like to attend a seminary? What do people do with a graduate degree in theology? The experience of attending seminary will depend on the kind of seminary you choose. I purposefully chose a seminary with more open-minded thinking and a social justice emphasis. The experience allowed me to think beyond the teachings in which I was raised. It was invigorating! My experience would have been different if I chose a seminary that expected me to think and believe in a specific kind of theology.

While many with a graduate degree in theology become church pastors and ordained clergy, there are many who go into academia and non-profit work that may or may not be faith-based. And, of course, people become chaplains!

Are you ordained? Is this a requirement? What training do you receive to work in this field? Yes, I am ordained. It is not necessarily a requirement to become a hospital chaplain, but if you want to become a board certified chaplain, you will be required to have endorsement from a religious body. In addition to traditional church denominations there are religious organizations that will endorse and ordain people from different and non-traditional backgrounds. I am grateful for the non-traditional options that are out there!

For my training I completed a summer internship during seminary and a year-long residency program in a hospital setting after completing my Master of Divinity (MDiv). The training is known as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and provides both clinical hands-on experience and opportunity for personal growth and reflection.

What was your college experience like, and how did it prepare you for your career? I chose to attend Barnard because I wanted the experience of being in New York City and to be in an environment that would nurture me as a young woman. College expanded my thinking and understanding of life in general. Being away from home also allowed me to explore my understanding of faith and the Divine instead of simply believing the teachings on which I had been raised. About halfway through my college career I had to admit to myself that I was not a hardcore scientist. I discovered that I really enjoyed anthropology as an area of study and chose anthropology as my minor. College helped me to think and see outside of the box which is very valuable in my career as a chaplain.

What is life really like as a clinical pastoral counselor? Who do you meet with on a daily basis, and what do you provide for them? In the hospital I make rounds on my assigned floors to check in on patients and their loves ones and to offer both spiritual and emotional support. I am also paged for emergencies that occur such as a code or trauma case in the emergency room. My work allows me to meet with people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. I spend a lot of time just being there for people in times of crises, whether it is to deal with a difficult diagnosis or to grieve the loss of a dear family member. I provide grief counseling, crisis counseling, and spiritual counseling. Sometimes I will pray with people or read passages of Scripture for encouragement. Mostly, I listen and show compassion in any way that I can.

What do you love most about your field of work? What is the hardest aspect? There is something very meaningful and sacred about being with people in their time of great need. I get to hear stories about people every day that inspires me. My work is very satisfying, and I feel good about being there for others. I also love that no two days are ever the same; my job is never boring!

The hardest aspect is probably when family members are having a difficult time making decisions for a patient who is declining and no longer able to make decisions for themselves. The ethical choice is to honor what the patient would have wanted, whether it is to remain on life support or to pass peacefully. It is often an extremely emotional and difficult decision for family. It is so much easier if patients have written up a living will that expresses their wishes very clearly. As a society we need to be better about having these conversations with our loved ones before it’s too late.

Do you feel that women are stigmatized in theological positions of leadership? What obstacles have you noticed or experienced, if any? I was raised in a church that did not allow for women to become ordained clergy. I know that is one of the reasons it took me a while to pursue my career as a chaplain. Even though in my mind I had no problems with women being ordained, it was still a challenge to accept my own sense of legitimacy in the field. While I have overcome that hurdle, I still experience times when other people do not see me as equal to my male colleagues. My male colleagues are often given more immediate respect and recognition from patients and families. I had one person tell me it was okay “to get him to come” when I introduced myself as the chaplain. Other patients have expressed their surprise to me that I was not an old white man wearing a collar. Nowadays I no longer see this as an obstacle. Instead, I see that since it is not possible for me to fit that particular mold, I am free to be ME and to be the kind of chaplain I know I can be.

What advice would you give to girls considering a career path in counseling or pastoral care? First of all, if you find that people often tell you that you’re a great listener, pay attention to that! Yes, listening is a skill that can be made into a career. There are a lot of different counseling career options (psychotherapist, social work, pastoral counselor, etc.) so it’s a matter of figuring out what your state requirements are and what kind of population you want to serve or what kind of environment you would prefer. It is also important to address any hurt or emotional pain you may have in your own life, otherwise it can be a challenge to work with people suffering from the same sort of thing. Working through your own hurt and pain will make you a better counselor or chaplain. I think it’s a good idea for everyone at some point to find a therapist if at all possible. We are often so hard on ourselves and working with a therapist can help us get out of unhealthy thought patterns.

What would you wear to a job interview? I have this really nice fitted dark gray-blue wool pant suit from J.Crew; it’s my power suit. If I can still fit into it, that’s what I would wear! Oh, and red shoes. I love my red shoes.

Any favorite websites particular to your field (or ones you just love for fun)? There are some professional chaplain websites with access to published journals and I am part of a couple chaplain groups on LinkedIn. The New York Times has a Health section and NPR will often feature stories related to healthcare. I like to stay informed about what is going on in our healthcare system. I also Google for information such as guided meditation scripts and spirituality group ideas. Mostly, I’m on Facebook because I like to stay in touch with family and friends all over the States and around the world.

Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? I look back at high school with a lot of fondness. I was pretty carefree back then and didn’t necessarily feel the need to fit in. My general life advice would be to not be so hard on yourself, especially when you get to your 20s! By the time I finished college I put a lot of pressure on myself to have everything figured out. Surround yourself with good people and do what you love. Everything else will eventually fall into place.

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