Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 64

No Free Lunch

By Jez Brown.

It continues to be madness to believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch! Beyond that statement, the use of the word ‘mad’ or any derivative will not be found within this article. This is because over the past two years, in serving as a Chaplain at a mental health hospital, I have come to recognise that the trajectory of work amongst those suffering with mental health issues is towards their recovery and rehabilitation rather than reinforcing stereotypical understandings about service-users within their care.

The NHS hospital in which I work for provides forensic mental health services. It supports people who, as a consequence of their mental health problems, have had contact with the legal system and require a safe and secure environment that enables them to receive a wide range of treatments, therapies and care to assist in their recovery. It was to this hospital that I was invited for that free lunch by a local general hospital chaplain who was looking for suggestions from me of Baptist ministers who might be suitable to offer eight hours a week as part of a team of three, to expand the work of chaplaincy on site.

It was to be a free lunch that, to a large degree, has changed my life. I’m not regularly given to use of such a rash or glib statement, but I believe it to be true. For, as I sat munching my way through a plate of lasagne, to quote an oft-used statement of Wesley, ‘…my heart was strangely warmed…’ This wasn’t about the food though – it was about God capturing my imagination to serve him in a new way, even though I didn’t realise that I was looking! As I toured the hospital I realised that I only had one name to give to my colleague of a potential new chaplain. It was mine.

Why me Lord?

I ought to state at this point that I had no past experience of chaplaincy of any sort. After leaving school in South Devon in 1978, I trained as an accountant, and in that profession I stayed, under various guises, until called to ministry in 1989. After theological training at Spurgeons’ College, a Baptist Theological College in South London, I served as an ordained minister in churches in Essex and Devon before becoming a Baptist Regional Minister (a ministry similar to that of a Bishop in the Church of England) serving in the South West of England.

“Why me Lord?” I wondered – I already have a full time and hugely rewarding role. However, as I reflected on this, I realised that my regional ministry had taken over the entirety of my life! My private life and ‘down time’ was based on a default that every other waking hour I was working as a Regional Minister (RM). At that point I had been a RM for 11 years and, while the pastoral care of ministers and churches was certainly a large part of my ministry, I did not realise just how much I was missing engagement with the wider population who are hurting, broken and, well… just plain lost! Even as I was clearing away the empty lasagne plate, I was starting to feel more ‘whole’ and more fulfilled in some way, as I considered what my role might be, if I were to be appointed.

Within days I had shared my experience at the hospital with the Chair of Trustees of the South West Baptist Association (SWBA), my principal employer. He was (and continues to be!) very supportive. Permission for exploring the chaplaincy role was granted and once I had formally expressed an interest in joining the Team, things moved very quickly. I was interviewed, undertook various inductions and security training, a security pass was supplied and - oh yes - injections too! Nobody told me about the injections that I would need to have – so much for a free lunch!

While I continue to work full time with the SWBA, I have managed to recalibrate my life to fit in two 4 hour sessions each week at the Hospital and have also managed to reclaim more time for myself and my family along the way too! It is interesting how, when the Lord moves in our lives, it tends to create ripples of blessing for others too and for that I am very grateful.

Training, mentoring and belonging

So here I was, after just a few months, suddenly part of a new team of three chaplains – working alongside two Anglicans whom I have come to greatly value as friends and colleagues.

I did some online training and research and realised that it would be important for me to arrange regular times of mentoring and ‘off-loading’. I became a member of the College of Healthcare Chaplains (CHCC), a professional organisation for chaplains of all faith and belief groups. It is open to all recognised healthcare chaplaincy staff, paid and voluntary, and to those with an interest in chaplaincy. It works to promote the professional standing of chaplaincy and to support its members, both nationally and within health and social care organisations. I attended my first annual conference this year at High Leigh in Hertfordshire and found it both stimulating and reassuring that I was not the only person for whom God had come looking ‘out of the blue’.

Let’s get started

I have to admit that on Day One I was apprehensive to say the least! It reminded me of how I felt as a child - waiting for the day of an appointment with the dentist! I could never see life beyond that appointment with the dentist’s chair! Here I was, stood outside a Medium Secure ward waiting to go in. I had been trained and briefed very well, but… but now I had to get started.

I ought to explain at this point that at the hospital we have sought as a chaplaincy team to embed ourselves in designated wards where we spend the majority of our time – rather than simply roaming across the whole site. This is with a view to building stronger relationships (I’ll come back to this later) with staff and service-users. One of my colleagues is embedded in the four Medium Secure wards (accommodating 60 men in total), I work in two Low Secure wards (15 men in each) and our other colleague is based in two Open wards (probably 20 men in total). On average I will pop into the Medium Secure wards once a month to catch-up with service-users that I have previously met on my wards.

It was to the Medium Secure wards that I headed on Day One. I entered the Base Control area through which everybody passes to gain access to corridors leading to the four wards. I received my electronic key and panic alarm, the first security door opened and I headed down the service corridor. After a few metres I arrived at the next security door. I was through that one, passing the Quiet Room on my right which is set aside for quiet reflection and prayer. I clicked the key fob and went through the third door. At this point I passed the Library, Team room, Art studio and various interview rooms. I stood outside the fifth door. This was the Ward entry door. I could feel a churning in my stomach (I remember a similar feeling prior to my first Greek exam at Spurgeon’s College!). Really Lord? Are you sure? Can we talk about this further? At that point I experienced God. From somewhere, a shaft of sunlight shot across in front of me as I stood with my finger on the key fob. It was as welcome as the first rainbow to those weary of travelling and seasick on the Ark, and in my Spirit, somewhere very deep within, I felt the Lord saying, “I’m already here! I didn’t need the key in your hand. Come on in and see what I am doing!”


I could feel the tears welling-up, but I refused to let them out. They could so easily have been misconstrued by those I was about to encounter. These tears had started to well-up through raw fear and trepidation, but I know that they would have flowed softly as joy and reassurance. The God of surprises who had captured my imagination over lasagne was now revealing himself though a second course: of obedience and surrender. I marched through those doors and have never looked back.

Chaplaincy might not be your calling, but I suspect that readers will be able to identify with an initial feeling of inadequacy at the start of some new ministry which, over time, is replaced by a rock of security as we recognise that God is at work in and through us – and sometimes in spite of us! It is this experience and an increasing level of self-knowledge that I have come to draw upon whenever I visit the hospital. God is at work in me and in those that I have the privilege of working amongst.

Job description

I have the best Job Description in the world. It amounts to me being free to ‘loiter with intent’: complete freedom to get alongside service-users and staff as need arises. My personal experience to date is that chaplaincy is very much valued within the NHS hospital that I work. I have found amongst Ward staff an encouraging recognition that as human beings we are more than ‘flesh and blood’ and that chaplains are required to minister to the spiritual needs of service-users. I find wall posters around the hospital wards making reference to individuals as being comprised of ‘mind, body and spirit’ and so the assumption is that I am there to do ‘the spirit bit’! This provides me with great opportunities to minister to everybody: staff and service-users who have a Christian faith, some who follow another faith and those with no faith. I am discovering a ‘way in’ to engage with everybody – whatever their views on faith or spirituality.

I try to ensure that whichever ward I visit, every time I enter I do so with a completely open mind as to what I will end up doing. I do try to remind myself at the start of every shift that this is a spiritual activity in which I am involved and try to anticipate what the Lord has lined up for me to do. Sometimes I may appear to ‘do’ very little. I may talk to many or few, or none. On occasions I may just sit and position myself within the eye-line of a service-user with whom I would like to try to engage – and see what happens. On other occasions people see me coming and they make the first approach to talk. It can be quite exhausting, as I am sure that you can understand that this ministry demands a high level of concentration and awareness of what is happening around you. What is the mood of the person with whom I am engaging? What about the person who is unsettled and constantly ‘on the move’? What about the one passing by behind me? What about the one given to angrily shouting out in a random way?

Lessons learnt and reflections entertained

So what key lessons have I learnt during my first two years at the hospital?

One of the first things to recognise is that it takes time and personal discipline to be able to position oneself correctly in the eyes of the service-users and also within the staff team. I refer to this process as learning to live ‘on the edge’. I want staff to see me as being a professional colleague working alongside them, while also recognising that I am not embedded into their moment-by-moment formal and necessary reporting procedures on service-users. At the same time, I want service-users to see me as being an approachable person in whom they can confide and seek spiritual direction and reassurance, without fear of everything shared being written up into a report. In the mental health context, as in every other walk of life, it is important to ensure that, when confidentiality is requested, that each party understands that there have to be limits to this. For example, anything that is shared with me by a service-user that could place that person, or me, or some other at risk of harm will need to be disclosed by me. I make this clear whenever a conversation looks like it might be moving that way.

Second, relationships that I seek to form with service-users are very different to any other kind of relationship that I have ever experienced as an accountant or as a Baptist minister. Just think for a moment about the different type of relationships that you are party to, and the relational networks that you belong to. You will be holding a wide range of relationships in your mind at this point: close and distant family and friends; employers and employees; clients; church members; special interest group members, etc. Without having to think about it, whenever we make contact with somebody with whom we have some sort of relationship, we somehow naturally, instinctively, know where the relationship was ‘left’ the last time you were in touch. You don’t have to stop and think about the level of familiarity you adopt in your conversation. You probably don’t have to pause to think about whether a handshake, kiss or hug is the most appropriate from of greeting! Our relationships are a growing, living expression of our humanity. However, in the world of mental health recovery, things are not always as they first appear when one is looking to establish appropriate relationships with service-users. I have discovered that, with those who are struggling with a high level of mental illness, they might well remember something about the last time that I met them, but that does not in any way guarantee that a ‘warm’ relationship is being developed that is necessarily as you would expect to happen in some other part of your life.

For example, on one particular Sunday morning, I was having a very agreeable conversation with a man who believes himself to be God. As a chaplain (one whom you might call ‘a friend of God’), it can prove to be relatively easy, therefore, to draw alongside him even when he is agitated or angry. God’s friend is to be trusted at all times! So on this particular morning our conversation was warm and friendly, but then suddenly something obviously flashed into his thinking and he started cursing just about everyone and everything in sight… including me! But, but, I’m nice and I’m a friend of God, and I’m a minister and, and… It was a shocking experience, but one that I was grateful to have experienced relatively early on in my work. People have occasionally been known to ‘have a go at me’ in a church setting, but never like this and with this level of vitriol! I visited this person a few days later and it was as if this outburst had never happened. He could remember that it had occurred – and there may have been similar outbursts with others in between my visits – but that was then and this is now… and so let’s relate to each other afresh now, in this moment. Life is just too short to bother with apologies or guilt! I have learned not to take anything personally or to take anything home with me, but, as it were, to hand any abuse in to the security staff on my departure - as though it was attached to my keys!

Third, I have learnt a considerable amount about the need for ‘hope’. The hospital staff hope for less stress and more colleagues to share the load. Service-users cling to the hope that one day they will be released. They harbour and develop dreams of what life will be like once they are released: of broken relationships that might be re-built, of business dreams that might be fulfilled; and I suspect that some of them hope that God, whom they would quite like to get to know, might forgive them for some of the bad things that they have said and done along the way. It seems to me that staff and service-users alike long for the slate of their lives to be wiped clean and they hope for a brand new start. Now they are talking my language!

Fourth, I am learning that the way in which I talk of God and faith, is extremely important. For those whose illness leads to them believing that they are God, or the Devil, I have learnt to be very careful not to feed or ‘stoke up’ their psychosis through sloppy use of language. For example, I tend not to talk about ‘hearing God’ because the assumption will be that I am hearing an audible voice. On one occasion there was a very humorous moment on one of the wards when a recovering service-user with his tongue firmly in his cheek announced at the top of his voice to a group of staff standing nearby, ‘you need to allocate a room here for Chaplain Jez – he hears God speaking to him!’ Once the laughter had died down, I realised that I had learnt more about this particular man. I had never spoken to him about ‘hearing’ from God. There was obviously some sort of understanding of religious language. Was it past or recent? I had been given another lead by the Spirit of God and one that I am following up slowly and gently at this time.

Presently I am thinking through with my chaplaincy colleagues how best to be accountable to our NHS employer for the things that we do and say during the course of our work. While confidentiality is paramount, we are looking to find ways of recording anonimised, qualitative data relating to each of our shifts. After all, when all is said and done, as chaplains we are employed to undertake a professional role and, while our work might not fit neatly into any standard NHS reporting systems, for chaplains to have integrity and our role to be valued, it’s important that we find ways of being accountable to management from our position ‘on the edge’. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Jez Brown

Regional Minister/Team Leader of the South West Baptist Association and part of the Chaplaincy Team at a NHS hospital

Ministry Today

You are reading No Free Lunch by Jez Brown, part of Issue 64 of Ministry Today, published in July 2015.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2020