Health-care chaplaincy: What's it good for?

Health-care chaplaincy: What's it good for?


Kathleen LaCameraKathleen LaCamera

Little did I know that the chaplaincy training I did at Yale-New Haven Hospital during my seminary training in the 1980s would lay the foundation for some of the best work I have ever had the privilege to undertake decades later in Britain.

Five years ago, alongside my work as a journalist — and with a lot of trepidation — I took on a half-day-a-week role as a hospital chaplain at the Royal Bolton Hospital in northwest England.

The Rev. Doug Smith, a fellow United Methodist clergy friend who, like me, was living in England, encouraged me to apply for a position with the multi-faith chaplaincy team with whom he worked. At the time, I was surprised to discover that the publicly-funded National Health Service put resources into providing professional health-care chaplains. The job involved working with patients, their families and staff at a culturally and religiously diverse 600-plus-bed hospital.  

I have enjoyed that chaplaincy work so much that I now devote half my workweek to chaplaincy roles in both hospital and community mental health settings. I echo the feelings of another Methodist chaplain colleague, the Rev. Graham Cutler, who says hospital chaplaincy gives him much-needed perspective, reminding him that he is “called to serve the wider community” — not just those in his two churches.

Cutler says the life-and-death realities of hospital work help keep him from “getting bogged down in church politics” and allow him to focus on things that “really matter.”

“As chaplains,” he explains, “we are practically and overtly demonstrating the love of God. It’s a ministry of incarnation and presence.”

Another colleague and Methodist laywoman, Shirley Hughes, has been a volunteer chaplain with the team for almost 20 years. Over those years, she has been surprised by how many hospital staff regularly stop her in the hallway and ask, “Have you got a minute? I need to talk.” She, too, sees her chaplaincy role as a privilege that has also changed her. “I’m a different, more confident person because of chaplaincy,” says Hughes.

The current economic crisis and the resulting pressures on public-sector spending have pushed hospital chaplains, as well as many others, to reflect more deeply and articulate more clearly what we do and why that work is valuable. 

We chaplains often talk about our work as being a "ministry of presence.” But what does that mean out on the wards or in the emergency room at 2 a.m. on a Saturday?

It means standing by someone's bedside in desperately sad and difficult circumstances, supporting them and their families as they face some of the hardest moments of their lives.       

It also means showing up in a ward or waiting area and saying “hello” on a long, slow afternoon when a patient is bored, down in the dumps or lonely and just plain glad to see someone who doesn't have to take their blood, discuss their bowel habits, or change a wound dressing.

A ministry of presence means having the time almost no other professional does in a hospital setting to be available.

We listen. We chat. We come back and see how it's all going, again and again.

We make the space and time for people to say things they didn't even know they wanted or needed to say until we showed up. We offer support, company and, yes, sometimes that includes prayers and rituals, but not always. Our professional knowledge and experience of Britain’s National Health Service in all its strengths and weaknesses comes in handy.

We know our patch well.

Chaplaincy a ‘different kettle of fish’

The other thing worth saying is we have specialist professional training for doing pastoral care in a hospital setting. I have been a parish minister, responsible for the cradle-to-grave pastoral care of a large congregation, and I can tell you, hospital chaplaincy is not the same thing.

While that parish experience is helpful, the challenge of fulfilling a chaplaincy role in a large, public health-care institution serving patients and staff of wide-ranging beliefs as well as those with none, is a different kettle of fish.

The specialist training continues on the job, formally through courses and informally through conversation and reflection within chaplaincy teams, who routinely support and challenge members to provide the best 24/7 care possible for their hospitals.

Several years ago, the British National Secular Society called for an end to the public funding of hospital chaplains. According to the BBC’s national “Today” morning news radio program, there was a “massive” response from listeners voicing support for specialist hospital chaplains.

That response is encouraging, but I actually feel some gratitude for the Secular Society’s challenge. We must articulate what it is we chaplains do — and why — in order to justify the resources our teams require to provide around-the-clock spiritual and religious care.

To be honest, sometimes I wonder of what use I can be when stepping onto a hospital ward and seeing that world of need all around me.

However, once I spend some time on that ward with patients and staff, especially those who tell me “I’m not religious” and then make me promise to come again, I rarely leave that ward without knowing the answer.

*LaCamera, a United Methodist minister, is a freelance journalist who also works as a hospital and mental health chaplain in Britain’s national health service.

Read British cite importance of hospital chaplains

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