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Chaplain Resident Follows an Unpredictable Path

As Whitney Barnes S’21 prepares to graduate from Bethel with her M.Div. this spring, she’s learning firsthand what it takes to be a chaplain during a pandemic through her clinical pastoral education program. She’s honored to serve patients in their most vulnerable moments and cherishes her role as a “walking gospel” at her hospital.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

March 15, 2021 | 1:30 p.m.

Whitney Barnes S'21 is about to graduate from Bethel Seminary with her M.A. in Divinity, and by this fall, she will be qualified as a staff chaplain.

Whitney Barnes S'21 is about to graduate from Bethel Seminary with her M.Div., and by this fall, she will be qualified as a staff chaplain.

“When you entered Bethel Seminary, was this the job you had in mind?” We ask Master of Divinity student Whitney Barnes S’21, whose eyes grow wide as she shakes her head. 

“Can you see my face?” she laughs, a little breathless. “I had no idea this would be my path.”

As Barnes started her last year at seminary, she needed to fulfill an internship requirement in order to graduate. She had initially applied for a part-time internship in a clinical pastoral education (CPE) program, but the woman who hired Barnes sensed that her skill set and nature proved a better fit for the full residency program. Rising to the challenge, Barnes is simultaneously finishing the final semester of her master’s program while also working as a chaplain resident at a San Francisco Bay Area hospital—clocking in 40 hours a week in addition to her three classes. She’ll graduate from Bethel Seminary this spring, and by this fall, she will be qualified as a full-time staff chaplain. “Yeah, God had a whole different plan than what I was ready for,” Barnes says, her smile laced with determination. 

Barnes had originally planned to go to seminary to deepen her understanding of the Bible, defend what she believes, and ultimately become a “really good preacher.” Even though she has arguably reached those goals, her current position is focused on individual relationships and caring for those who are grieving. “I thought that I would only be talking to Christians for the rest of my life, sharing the gospel in that way,” Barnes says. “But in chaplaincy, you find yourself as the walking gospel, a silent walking gospel. The patients need a person who's going to sit there sometimes and just be silent for their deepest, most vulnerable moments.”

Currently serving in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), Barnes has so far worked with only three healthy babies. The others have faced significant challenges, including a pair of twins born at 16 weeks old. The parents had prepared for their growing family by moving to a new house in a new city, and they were doing their best to manage complications. Barnes had entered the hospital room to find the father holding his babies, whispering, “We had so many plans for them.”

Barnes knew that she could say nothing to ease this family’s pain and merely sat with them in the mourning. The next day, she offered to pray for them because they were also Christians, and eventually, they were able to begin processing this traumatic event with Barnes, who grieved with them in her own way. When she talked to her CPE supervisor about the case, she admitted that her job wasn’t becoming easier, and he promised that it would never become easier. Instead, he said, “What happens is you get your skills up to be able to know how to navigate those things. And you realize being there for people becomes innate to you."

To balance the emotionally charged days at the hospital, Barnes intentionally cultivates opportunities to care for her own wellbeing. Before and after she leaves the hospital, Barnes makes time for what she calls silent meditation walks, allowing herself to refocus her energy on the Lord and remain present, whether at home or at work. She also enjoys walks with her dog, Bruno, and evenings with her husband, Andre, especially when he makes dinner after a long day. Her favorite thing to do is re-watch shows from her childhood like “Sister, Sister” and “Girlfriends.”

Barnes also meets with her supervisor frequently to process her work, and she’s grateful for his 20 years of experience in the field as he makes sure she has what she needs to thrive day to day. The CPE program includes being part of a group that meets four times a week. There are two Christians, a Unitarian, and a Buddhist in this covenant group, and under the guidance of their supervisor, they discuss their cases, how they served the patients, and how they responded personally.

“I would not be the person I am today if it wasn't for the Bethel classes, professors, and peers stretching and challenging me to become the best version of myself. Bethel has done a fantastic job giving me the confidence, knowledge, and tools necessary to be fully equipped to serve people in ministry and the world.”

— Whitney Barnes S’21

As she engages with colleagues and patients of various faith backgrounds, Barnes is especially grateful for her Bethel education. Throughout her online classes in seminary, she enjoyed dialoguing with her classmates about their personal perspectives shaped by their lives, locations, and families. Barnes learned how to empathize with her classmates who had come from different denominations and cultures while also understanding more about her own beliefs and context. “I never realized this, but those cultural classes that I had, the leadership classes, the formation classes, all of that came together,” Barnes says. “I found myself in CPE being like, ‘Oh, I can pull from all this stuff that I learned and now use it like everything.’ Bethel had equipped me, and I had learned so much.”

Even though Barnes doesn’t consider herself a preacher in the typical sense, she discovers different ways to incorporate her ministry education into her job every day. When a COVID-19 patient passed away a few weeks ago, his family showed up at the hospital on a Sunday morning. They asked Barnes to pray with them, and after empathizing with their loss of a grandfather, dad, and husband, she led with prayer and gave them all an opportunity to share stories about their loved one. “That was a sacred moment,” Barnes says. “It was so beautiful. Who knew that I would have 21 people with me that day—that's like a church service for some people." 

The blessings she continues to encounter in this position and at her time at Bethel have profoundly impacted her, especially as she prepares to finish her degree. Barnes received four scholarships on June 9, 2020, which turned out to be perfect timing months into the pandemic. Her husband is a teacher in the Bay Area, and Barnes is the first person in her immediate family to graduate from a university and receive a substantial scholarship. With this kind of financial support, she found renewed strength to finish her last year of seminary while also investing in patients through the CPE program.

“Because of COVID-19, families can’t come into the hospital. The chaplains and medical staff are the ones keeping the patients company,” Barnes says. “The connection we have with patients is a bit stronger because they’re so lonely, making the work worth so much. I knew this was a privilege, but it's a reminder every single day that we get to go out and do this work. What a blessing.”

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