Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
--Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Robert Bly
Frequently students who come to ChIME have “stood up during supper” with a strong sense of calling. Rev. Tom Kircher was one such student. Poet and poetry lover, father of three children, and an engineer by training, Tom struggled for decades with the necessity of working in the military-industrial complex. His “lonely impulse of delight,” as Yeats said, was to be a chaplain. Since his ordination in June 2017, Tom says, “A dilemma was orchestrated by Spirit to find some clarity about what I do with my life, as much as possible.” In other words, be careful what you ask Spirit for; you may get it, and it will ask much of you.
Sometimes ChIME students come in with vast experience in the helping professions. But as someone who’d spend the bulk of his time NOT teaching or counseling, Tom was clear early on that some supervised clinical training would be important for him. As ordination neared, he cleared more time in his schedule because “ChIME is such a beautiful container. With so much diversity and depth at the same time, I really wanted to be able to take advantage of that unique environment before ordination,” he says. “It became clearer that more clinical work would also help my calling take shape. “It’s one thing to have an inner sense and affirmation to accept ordination, but what does it mean in real terms?” Tom asked Spirit. He didn’t realize how quickly Spirit would answer his question.
“You know the rapids are around the bend, that’s one thing, but then you’re in them and there’s no time to think about anything else,” Tom says of the way his journey has entered whitewater this year. Planning for a mellow post-ChIME summer, with lots of rest and just his regular part-time engineering job, instead Tom found himself negotiating steep learning curves in four new ways. Now Rev. Kircher teachs a college chemistry lab, consults for a new engineering employer NOT in the military-industrial complex, ministers at a senior facility near his home in Biddeford, and has gone “back-to school” for Clinical Pastoral Training (CPT) to prepare him to work with recently homeless veterans.
It’s the work with veterans that presents Tom with a growing edge right now. Seniors, veterans, and those suffering mental illness are all part of Tom’s ministry with Volunteers of America Northern New England (VOANNE), a vast network of social service facilities and programs that serves thousands. “Seniors needs are great and they’re so available,” Tom says. During his ChIME internship at VOANNE he led group discussions and worked one-on-one with people in their 80s and 90s. “They’re so excited to remain connected, especially when they’re not able to drive anywhere to participate in religious services or other activities that once gave their lives rich meaning,” Tom says.
Following up with the multi-tiered internship program that ChIME is working on with VOANNE where a student can volunteer the first year, have a formal internship the second and possibly continue after graduation to supervise other ChIME Chaplains, Tom now works with formerly homeless vets who live in two VOANNE group homes. Many struggle with addictions and with finding employment prior to being able to live on their own. As preparation for this new work, in August Tom went with his supervisor Rev. Al Boyce to Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) for a national conference on “Moral Injury and Collective Healing.” “When you’ve done something that violates your core morals, you have a separation within yourself,” Tom explains. “It’s not the same as PTSD. Clinically it looks very different. Paths to opening up that conversation are different, according to the seminar leaders, who came from both VOA and PTS.”
“Being a chaplain in the fluid sense of the work with veterans is a perfect segue from ChIME,” Tom says. In order to deepen his clinical skill set, in September Tom also began a 14-week Clinical Pastoral Training (CPT) program, led by ChIME graduate Rev. Lori Whittemore. The CPT group meets online three hours/week for peer supervision, and Tom also connects with Lori once a week for individual supervision. “So far so good,” Rev. Kircher says. ”Where I am right now is, ordination is not the end of anything, it’s the beginning. For whatever reason, I’m being asked to learn quickly. It’s OK; as long as I remember I’m still in the shallow end. Learn to float, put my face under water, do rotary breathing. As long as I don’t attempt any rescues from the bottom of the deep end, I do fine.”