The Not-So-Glamorous, but Vital Ministry of Hospital Chaplaincy
By Carl Stagner
Saying just the right thing to a mother whose child was just murdered. Maintaining peace between family members feuding over medical decisions. Sharing the hope of Christ with both dying and recovering patients. Hospital chaplain ministry may be more challenging than you can imagine. David Harness knows. He has served as a chaplain for seventeen years. Kristen Higgins has served as a hospital chaplain for more than nine years. Mark Eberly has served as a hospital chaplain for six years, following eleven years of pastorates at two Church of God congregations in western Pennsylvania. In the following interview with these three ordained Church of God chaplains, David, Kristen, and Mark offer valuable insights into the not-so-glamorous, but vital, ministry of hospital chaplaincy.
Where do you serve as hospital chaplain?
David: University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore, Maryland—a 772-bed tertiary-care hospital with a Level One trauma center. Our patients come from all over the state and region, as well as from across the city. Baltimore has been in the national news this year for the death this spring of a young African American in police custody, Freddie Gray, which led to riots and the charging of the officers involved. The city has also seen a spike in day-to-day violence, just recording Baltimore’s 300th homicide in 2015 (its highest annual total this century). UMMC has been on the front lines of those developments, treating those impacted by the violence and providing a place of healing for people of all races and backgrounds.
Kristen: I serve at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital, primarily in the Trauma ICU and the Adult Emergency Department.
Mark: For the past three years I have served as a chaplain at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System training as a Supervisory Educational Student. During my first year, I was a chaplain resident before moving to a staff training position halfway through that first year. In 2012, I was certified as a board-certified chaplain with BCCI and again through NAVAC. I was also certified as an ACPE supervisory candidate in 2012.
What are the primary responsibilities that you have as hospital chaplain?
David: To provide spiritual care and counsel to patients, families, and staff—from the very religious to the completely non-religious. On any given day, that can involve a range of tasks, such as: helping a family absorb the news of their loved one’s murder; praying with a patient newly diagnosed with a life-threatening illness; counseling young parents wrestling with a difficult care decision involving their child; providing a safe space for health care providers (and trainees)—burdened by the emotional toll of their work—to voice their struggles. At the center of nearly all we do is making meaning out of events, seeking and discerning where God is at work.
Kristen: Serving patients, families, and staff affected by traumatic issues and other difficult situations. Serving on committees that further enhance the hospital’s response to disasters. Also, mentoring chaplain interns and residents, especially in ministering to those affected by physical challenges since I live with one myself.
Mark: My responsibilities have changed over the last few years, but have included working with veterans and their families as part of the Hospice and Palliative Care program, the Domiciliary (program serving homeless and dual-diagnosis veterans), various clinics, Alzheimer’s/Dementia Unit, and long-term care. Currently, I invest most of my time training students as part of our Clinical Pastoral Education program, which includes chaplain interns and chaplain residents. During the last few months, I have been training three chaplains that have are specializing in a newly developed Mental Health Chaplain Resident Specialty.
What are some of the greatest blessings of serving as hospital chaplain?
David: Seeing lives transformed for good, in spite of (and often through) adversity. Helping people rediscover—or return to—faith. Being a part of God’s healing, redemptive work. One day recently, a blessing showed up at my door in the form of a young man nearly killed in an auto accident a few years ago, returning to thank me for the support and encouragement I offered him and his wife through his long recovery. Another day, the mother of a ten-year-old girl, who spent months in our Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in a coma, returned with that same daughter, now twelve years old, praising God for answered prayer in the form of her amazing recovery.
Kristen: Being a supportive presence to those in crisis. Providing insights that have a long-term positive impact on those going through the healing process. Providing prayers and supportive listening to staff as they serve as caregivers.
Mark: I greatly enjoy and am privileged to serve those who have served and sacrificed for our country so faithfully. With students, it is truly a blessing to watch students develop and grow in their ability to provide excellent pastoral care. I am very blessed to help students learn to develop and deepen their pastoral care relationships with the veterans which, in turn, facilitates emotional and spiritual healing with our veterans and their families.
What are some of the greatest challenges to serving as hospital chaplain?
David: One challenge is time. One never has enough of it to spread to all those in need, so we must be careful stewards and manage it well. Another is keeping perspective, not allowing the weight of tragedy or illness or loss to block our view of the goodness, beauty, creativity, and health in the world God made.
Kristen: Ministering to those not of the Christian faith. Responding to multiple crises happening simultaneously. Dealing with my own self-care needs and compassion fatigue.
Mark: One of the greatest challenges of being a chaplain is being able to work through the pain, hurt, and distrust of people who have been spiritually injured, and even spiritually abused, by ministers. This poses a challenge in building rapport and trust so that the opportunity to minister can begin.
What might be some of the common misconceptions of what hospital chaplains do?
David: One common misconception within the hospital is that chaplains only see people who are dying. We meet people at every stage of the journey, and the vast majority of those we see survive or recover. Another misconception (more often heard outside the hospital environment) is that we only pray with patients or have a cursory (surface-level) relationship with them. Crises can strip bare any pretense and lead to an immediate intimacy with those in our care. This requires skill and sensitivity and puts us in a position to make a significant impact in the moment and, in some cases, to have an enduring bond with a patient (or family or care provider).
Kristen: That all we do is pray. That we are not really ministers since we don’t have a “congregation” or because we don’t work in a church setting.
Mark: I think one of the greatest misconceptions is that being in professional chaplaincy simply entails being a parish pastor in a clinical setting. While many of the skills and abilities for providing pastoral care can transfer for ministers who want to make the transition, professional chaplains have more developed and precise skills that result from specialized training in clinical pastoral education.
You are always praying for others. How can we pray for you?
David: Pray for strength, wisdom, grace, and that I’ll stay ever attuned to the Holy Spirit’s leading. As noted earlier, often we meet people in very vulnerable, sometime very intense moments. How we respond to them can make a world of difference in how they emerge from the experience. Also, the American health care system is undergoing tremendous change which—even when positive—can be stressful and uncertain, on many levels. Pray for our health care system and our providers, that we may be good stewards and remain faithful to our healing mission.
Kristen: Please pray for strength and wisdom while constantly caring for those in crisis. Also, pray for my own physical well-being and that I continue to sense the Lord’s presence around me.
Mark: I would appreciate your prayers for me and my family as I prepare for a certification meeting in November. Please be pray that I continue to access all that I am so that I can remain in my current place of employment.
Learn more about Chaplain Ministries of the Church of God at https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/chaplain-ministries.
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