Most people flash their badge when they’re at work, showing their authority or right to be in some place. But in Jeff Thompson’s line of work, hiding his badge is more often the case.
Thompson is the director of pastoral care at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. He’s the one who’s there to comfort family and staff at the hospital during some crisis or trauma. But oftentimes, if those families know he’s a chaplain, they immediately fear the worst.
“The first thing when the family members looked down and saw the word chaplain, she started tearing up,” Thompson said of a recent encounter he had with a family. “She said, ‘I don't want to hear what you've got to say.’ And I said, ‘No, I'm just out here because I heard y'all were here and we didn't have anybody out here.’ So I had to calm her down.”
Thompson is in stressful situations like that a lot. In some ways, he said his work is a calling, something he simply realized was a gift of his back in the early days of his ministry.
He worked at churches, but wasn’t too keen on spending his life surrounded by the drama in student ministry. He started working with senior citizens and eventually found an interest in pastoral care at hospitals. He landed at East Central Regional Hospital in Augusta where he was trained and then worked at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, Alabama, both of which were places where he was able to dig deeper into that calling and use that gift.
A job opened up at Northeast Georgia Medical Center some two decades ago and he knew it was the perfect fit in a growing area and at a growing hospital.
“I put my name in the pot for this because we just love the mountains and thought this would be great,” Thompson said. “And God has a way of working things out, I guess, because we got the call to come up here.”
He’s been at it for 22 years and will retire at the end of the year, just after being officially named a hero by the Georgia Hospital Association — a title only five others in Georgia hold — in early November.
“I'm very honored by it,” Thompson said. “I've told several that did the nominations that they've always been heroes to me and I feel like I'm standing in their place in some ways … I'm very honored and very humbled by it.”
He doesn’t do it for the awards, though. He does it because he feels like it’s the only thing for him.
“I just came to the understanding that one of my gifts is pastoral care,” Thompson said.
So that’s what he’s spent much of his life doing. It’s sometimes a hectic job, which is why he tries to start his days off with a little silence.
“I start the day out every day that I can in a quiet prayer,” Thompson said. “I can't always do that because there's stuff that comes up, but like this morning, I had a little time I could get down and just be quiet.”
He said that’s an important part of his job because in order to take care of others, he has to take care of himself first.
“If you don't, this could consume you,” Thompson said.
When his beeper goes off or his phone rings, Thompson gives himself about 10 minutes to respond.
“I waited outside until family got there so I could carry them to a room,” Thompson said of another recent encounter with a family. “Just to let them know it's pretty serious.”
There are six chaplains on staff at the hospital that keep the service running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also have four residents there for the year to train, five that rotate in and out each fall and spring, 20 more contract chaplains and about 30 volunteer chaplains.
It’s a major operation for a job that often can go unnoticed.
“What we try to do is be there for the patients and the families,” Thompson said.
That includes the times when a chaplain isn’t necessarily wanted.
“We meet people where they are, instead of where we are,” Thompson said. “Which is challenging, because I don't know everything about everything. But I've learned a lot. And we use this term ‘non-anxious presence.’ We try to be with people where they are.”
When he comes across someone of a different religion, Thompson said the chaplains have relationships with many churches in the area that can help.
Many times, his job simply goes back to being that “non-anxious presence.” He can’t help someone physically, but he’s there to help them through their emotional pain and sometimes, that’s more than enough.
“What we're there for is to try to travel with a person in the midst of that,” Thompson said. “Yes, we have a theological education, yes we have had a lot of training in crisis intervention. But it's just trying to be human with somebody, and if that means being there that's fine. If it means standing outside the door, that's fine too. It's not my agenda, it's theirs.”