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The life of a chaplain

The life of a chaplain

Some years ago, when I was working as an emergency room chaplain at one of our Advocate Aurora Health hospitals, a tragedy happened. A young man was shot, and despite the skilled work of the most talented doctors and nurses I have ever met, he died.

We were able to locate and contact just one family member – his father. He came to the hospital, and in the little consult room next to the Emergency Department, we gave him the terrible news that his son had died.

The man screamed and cried and wailed. When the other members of the team stepped away, I sat with him in that little room, where he continued to scream and cry and wail in disbelief, and it went on and on. But still I sat there with him. No words. I just sat with him.

He cried and cried and cried. He screamed “Why!?”at the top of his lungs. Over and over this continued, and I sat with him.

Finally, after a long time, maybe out of sheer exhaustion, he quieted down. I encouraged him to breathe deeply, the first words I had spoken. He breathed deeply and finally sort of looked at me and asked a question.

“So is it like your job to sit with people like me in situations like this?”

“Well, yes, it is,” I answered.

“Dude, your job sucks,” he said quietly.

But then he said something I will never forget.

“Today is the worst day of my life,” he said. “But I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had to sit here all alone.”

What exactly is it that chaplains actually do? What difference do they make, and why exactly is it that despite saying practically nothing, the presence of the chaplain made an impact on that man and on others like him?

New research at Advocate Aurora Health has begun to shed an interesting light on these questions. Supported by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation and New York-based Health Care Chaplaincy Network, chaplains and researchers accomplished an 18-month mixed methods review of chaplain work and produced an inventory of what chaplains do and what outcomes they achieve. This inventory is known as the Chaplaincy Taxonomy.

In it, outcomes are described as Intended Effects, that is, what the chaplain hopes to accomplish. A scan of the Intended Effects list illuminates what outcomes the chaplain with the man whose son had died might have accomplished.

Journeying with someone in the grief process, demonstrating care and concern and lessening someone’s feelings of isolation are just three examples of what outcomes helped that man feel an impact from the chaplain’s presence that terrible day.

When chaplains use a consistent set of shared terminology to describe their interventions and outcomes, it also makes it easier for inter-disciplinary team members to understand what impacts chaplains can make, and it makes it easier for them to ask for chaplain services to match the needs they may see in their patients and their families.

It also makes it easier for patients, helping them understand when they might need, request or want a chaplain in their time of need.

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  1. Thanks for this article, Rev. Massey. One of the resident chaplains at AdvocateAurora Good Shepherd Hospital consistently rounds and offers spiritual care in our Infusion Center. Staff and patients, alike, have reported – to our Senior Staff Chaplain and me – the value of her presence. The interventions of this particular chaplain, and others like her, ‘lessen the sense of isolation’ and contribute beneficially to the multidisciplinary care plan.

  2. Reverend Kevin Massey

    Thank you Sally! You are right that people in a place like the infusion center can feel isolated and alone. Purposeful accompaniment by the chaplain does lessen the sense of isolation (one of the Chaplaincy Taxonomy Intended Effects) in a powerful way!

  3. Great article Kevin! I’ve always valued our Chaplains, and everything they offer to this institution! God Bless you all and thank you!

  4. Reverend Kevin Massey

    Hi Kathy! Thank you! I’m glad you liked the article.

  5. Kevin,
    Over the years I have depended on chaplains for support for patients, families and our team. The partnership that you provide is immeasurable and I have always appreciated the work that you do to support those who are as this gentleman spoke of, having the worst day of their lives. Thank you to you and all for the work you do.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your article, Kevin. Thanks for sharing it! It brought back memories of when you sat with my sister and I in the ER when my mom was brought in. It made such a difference to feel the support and presence of a chaplain in a stressful situation and to know we were not alone.

  7. Rev. Joyetta Andrews February 1, 2019 at 6:13 pm · Reply

    I served for seven years as Chaplain Pastoral Care, at my church at my Pastor’s request. The families and members I served often expressed appreciation for my presence. It is about caring and loving others in their moments of challenges.

  8. I have a wonderful memory of a family friend (and father of an Aurora physician, Doug McManus) who was a psychiatrist practicing in Sioux Falls, SD, not a Chaplain but he might as well have been; he came to sit with my mother every day in the hospital when she was dying of cancer of the colon in 1975. Terry McManus, was a quiet, peaceful soul who would listen and talk with my mom in soft, quiet tones. His presence was a calming effect on my mom that the rest of us really didn’t know how to express at the time. I was the oldest of 4 children and was only 25 and fresh out of college. I am internally grateful for Terry’s support of my mom in her time of need! I know she had Chaplain in Sioux Falls who stopped by as well, but Terry’s support was so personal and so special! Vione Morton

  9. I am reading your article with tears in my eyes. Thank you so much for sharing Kevin!
    And thank you for the wonderful work you do!

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About the Author

Reverend Kevin Massey
Reverend Kevin Massey

Reverend Kevin Massey, health enews contributor, is the System Vice President of Mission and Spiritual Care for Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. He has more than 20 years of health care chaplaincy experience. Kevin is a frequent writer and speaker on topics in spiritual care and chaplaincy training.