By Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner
As I reflect on shrinking pastoral care staffing, a couple of thoughts emerge. First, haven’t chaplaincy staffing levels always been stretched over the patient loads and administrative duties? Second, in the final days of summer we might prefer to think about relaxing on the beach or taking a retreat rather than addressing the dilemmas of our work.
If it is true that we have always been stretched, what do we fear now? We may fear losing our jobs as well as for the patients’ spiritual needs. A colleague of mine, an excellent manager, used to be in charge of a single rehabilitation facility. As the facility expanded to two, she became the director of two facilities. Now her facility has four campuses and she is responsible for all of them. Moreover, she reports that all department directors have been asked to cut their budgets by 3%-5%, resulting in staffing cuts. My colleague will obviously need to recruit volunteers, beyond the Eucharistic ministers and the on-call clergy.
The network that my colleague belongs to is huge and very different from the classic community and independent hospitals. A major difference is that community hospitals are supported by a community of volunteers. But on the positive side, a number of the member hospitals within my friend’s partnership have well-established CPE internship programs. The CPE students provide a wonderful, invaluable blending of learning, experience and ministering to the patient. In addition, the professional chaplain’s work can be supplemented by the field work education students, per diem chaplains, volunteers, and members of the clergy of various faiths.
A practical approach to staffing might be for the directors of pastoral care, or designees to gather data on why it is not a good practice to cut pastoral care budgets. Then, armed with data such as the number of patients who requested to be seen or were seen, not the number of beds in the hospital, the director may want to pursue the challenge of winning an increase in her budget.
Seeing every patient who enters a facility is not a realistic goal. I have always used an online referral system to visit the patients. They either self-referred upon admission, or other caregivers, including doctors, referred them to the chaplain. In this way I could organize my visits by emergencies, critical care, friendly visits and priorities such as expected length of stay. At times I sent handwritten notes to patients whom I missed, often clients known to me from previous hospital stays. Though letters are no substitute for being seen in person, this is a fine complementary ministry rooted in the Catholic tradition. My ministry to a few amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patients who could no longer speak was primarily through letters. This method did not seem time-consuming.
Beyond being a compassionate and an attentive listener and responder, I would describe myself as a practical, pragmatic, and frugal chaplain. The question was not how to stretch myself beyond what I had or could do, but how to function fully and well in the context of my ministry demands. I was a single, autonomous chaplain providing pastoral care to the entire hospital’s shifting population of patients, workers, family, friends, and others. As much as possible, I worked within the hours I was compensated for. Although that meant I had to maintain the status quo, I helped to preserve the integrity and the continuity of my model of chaplaincy. It is unthinkable to minister as a Catholic lay chaplain without the help of volunteers of some kind. We use Eucharistic ministers to bring the Holy Communion to the sick. The Eucharistic ministers find it a privilege to bring the Body of Christ, and the patients in turn greatly appreciate the ministry. And of course priests provide the Sacrament of the Sick and confessions, the ministries that are reserved for them.
As a seasoned chaplain, I also supervised field work for students from area theological schools and seminaries. The field work students are as invaluable for delivering pastoral care as the CPE students. I have always said to them, “The patients you saw would have gone unseen if it weren’t for you.” However, I stressed that their primary responsibility was learning from their experience. By extension, we could also recruit and, I stress here, train, volunteer members of the parishes who support us as chaplains to help us visit the sick.
While summer lasts here in the Northeast and elsewhere, please, instead of worrying about the shrinking staff, while there is still time, recharge. Stretch yourselves on the beach by the busy ocean or by a gently lapping lake, or be caressed by the wind on a mountaintop.
Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner, BCC, is a chaplain in Natick, MA.