Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Rev. Lauren Van Ham

Rev. Lauren Van Ham, M.A., began her professional life as a performing artist in NYC before pursuing interfaith seminary studies at The Chaplaincy Institute, in California.  Following her ordination in 1999, Lauren served as a hospital chaplain focusing on psychiatry, palliative care, and bereavement support.  Her ministry moved to a corporate environment, in 2007, where she custom-designed employee engagement programs for multi-national companies committed to sustainability and culture change.  In 2010, she returned to The Chaplaincy Institute where, until recently, she served as Dean. Lauren’s passion for spirituality, art and Earth’s teachings have supported her specialization in eco-ministry, grief & loss, and sacred activism.  Her essay, “Way of the Eco-Chaplain,” appears in the collection, Ways of the Spirit: Voices of Women; and her work with Green Sangha (a Bay Area-based non-profit) is featured in Renewal, a documentary celebrating the efforts of religious environmental activists from diverse faith traditions across America. She is a guest writer for “Progressing Spirit,” a weekly publication exploring theology, spirituality and public events. Currently, Lauren tends her private spiritual direction and eco-chaplaincy consulting practice; and serves as guest faculty for several schools in the Bay Area.

Vennly: In your role as Dean and guest faculty at The Chaplaincy Institute you have had unique insight into the type of work that aspiring chaplains are looking to take on. What are some of the challenges that the next generation of chaplains are hoping to tackle?

Lauren: chaplain’s practice is to hold space for the Holy in spaces and situations that often feel disconnected from the sacred.  With so many of our systems coming apart — healthcare, housing, education, the ecological web of which we’re a part – today’s chaplains are being asked to provide care on multiple levels. Certainly we are being asked to invite and facilitate care in situations that might require advocacy (from end-of-life to street ministry), or conflict resolution (from family meetings to street demonstrations), or creating space for prayer and reflection (from ERs, to a town that’s been leveled by a disaster).  The intensity of despair and division felt by humans today also insists on authenticity from those of us intending to be spiritually present — appropriately using our own humanity to provide strength, courage, acceptance for the event at hand. Chaplains, going forward, will be asked to provide spiritual presence and spaciousness for the incredible diversity of people, faiths, stories, while also being sure that we are taking care of ourselves. 

Vennly: Much of your personal work has focused on “eco-chaplaincy.” For those not familiar with the term, what does “eco-chaplaincy” mean?

Lauren: Eco-chaplaincy, or eco-ministry, is about the spiritual care of our home, Earth.  In my theological understanding, the Cosmos is Divine, and divine sparks aglow in all Earths’ inhabitants.  In my understanding, we are not separate from the living system around us but rather, a part of it; and our actions carry impact, positive and negative.  It is very easy to observe the ways humans have negatively impacted the health of the air, water, soil, and our fellow species. My ministry is trying to help us reconnect intimately with the ways we can also positively impact the living system around us.  We hold an ancient wisdom that needs to be recovered as we, in the present moment, make time-sensitive decisions. This is a demanding spiritual practice that requires great faith, strong community, and radical love.

Vennly: Another key part of your work is helping people with “spiritual direction”. What does this entail and what are some of the “spiritual direction” tools or strategies that you would recommend to others?

Lauren: I LOVE Spiritual Direction! The first thing to know is that the name for this practice is old and not very accurate.  There is not, in this practice, a “director.” Rather, during a session, those involved are tracking the direction in which Spirit is moving.  Most typically, a spiritual direction session includes a spiritual director and client. For one hour, they engage in contemplative conversation noticing how and where the Divine is moving in the client’s life.  Whether with prayer or meditation, art and journaling, dream-work, or various exercises of discernment, spiritual direction encourages us to look for Divine guidance and surprises (!!) in the face of our linear minds’ tendencies toward logic and doubt.  Spiritual Direction invites intimacy with the Divine/G-d/Source/Dharma for the individual and creates, with their spiritual director, support for the dark times, celebration for the break-throughs, and accountability to stay true to one’s own spiritual be-coming. 

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