By Beringia Zen
Some time ago, I came upon one of our department’s Catholic volunteer Eucharistic ministers who was visibly upset. She told me about a patient who not only needed the Eucharist but also a caring, listening presence. On this particular day, she happened to be that needed presence. “I was in tears after I left the room,” she told me. I asked her how she might take care of herself after such an encounter. She responded, “I will just add her to my prayer list. What else can I do?”
Communion ministers, just like chaplains, are spiritual witnesses to suffering, sickness, dysfunctional family dynamics, death, anxiety, and fear. Even though they are volunteers assigned the task of giving the Eucharist, they are also at risk for compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. Coordinators of volunteer Eucharistic ministry programs should know the challenges and possibilities for integrating practices of self-care.
These volunteers are often in a liminal position; they are not chaplains, but neither do they only serve the Eucharist. During June, July and August of this year, our 29 Eucharistic ministers made contact with 3,210 patients and family members. Out of these contacts, 49% involved communion. So Eucharistic ministers spend over half of their volunteer hours engaging with patients and families outside their primary task of serving the Eucharist. Our volunteers are trained to refer patients to departmental chaplains when additional emotional or spiritual support is needed. However, they often find themselves in situations where they are the primary givers of spiritual care.
One day, after being out on the hospital floors, a Communion minister reflected, “I made some hospitality calls today.” He was referring to those visits that stay on surface topics such as the weather, Kansas City sports teams, or national news. As we talked further about the concept of hospitality, he proposed that perhaps his ministry could be understood as spiritual hospitality — an important insight. Eucharistic ministers enter a hospital room entrusted with the authority to give patients and families the body of Christ. As a result of this authority, however, they also bring their unique spiritual wisdom to which Catholic patients and families are often attuned. Eucharistic ministry in a hospital setting is a vocation of hospitality that intertwines the giving of both Eucharist and spiritual presence.
Abba James, one of the Desert Fathers from the fourth or fifth century, is thought to have said, “It is better to receive hospitality than to give it.” I have shared this piece of desert wisdom with our Eucharistic ministers to reflect on the importance of self-care. Those who give hospitality also need to receive hospitality; in fact, it is in the balance of giving and receiving that emotional and spiritual equanimity is found. I have stressed to our Communion ministers that a crucial aspect of Eucharistic ministry is developing a spiritual practice of self-care — a practice of giving oneself spiritual hospitality.
For our volunteers, this can be a counterintuitive idea. The foundation of Eucharistic ministry is to give the Eucharist; this is not a ministry based in the symbolic giving of oneself but a concrete sharing of a tangible sign of God’s grace. Additionally, self-care cannot be learned in a single training session, but develops slowly over time as spiritual caregivers are formed in their vocation. Such ongoing formation of Communion ministers can often be hindered by the challenges of staff workloads and the often fluctuating schedules of volunteers.
Despite these challenges, ongoing formation can be informally interwoven into encounters between departmental staff and Communion minsters. Volunteers need to be informed of the signs of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma through emails, educational pamphlets, or direct conversation. This education can validate an existing self-awareness of Eucharistic ministers that their hospitality extends beyond the rituals of giving Communion. Such education normalizes the emotional and spiritual difficulties that they feel, and leads to opportunities for emotional processing with departmental staff and for introducing a variety of tools for self-care. I have found that just the suggestion of journaling or developing a simple ritual around hand-washing can help Communion ministers to explore the delicate and necessary balance of giving and receiving spiritual hospitality.
Also, staff chaplains must model self-care. When volunteers witness staff chaplains caring for not only others, but themselves, self-care becomes part of the lived, shared experience of departmental best practices. I collage for self-care, and I often leave one of my collages in progress on my desk. Doing so allows me to share my processing with our volunteers and demonstrates one way of practicing self-hospitality. Also, as much as I can while still maintaining the boundaries of HIPPA, I share with our volunteers my own struggles with emotionally and spiritually challenging hospital encounters. The modeling of self-care creates an environment of vulnerable collegiality rather than one of guarded demarcation between chaplain and volunteer. As Eucharistic ministers learn ways of caring for themselves, they not only learn important skills, they begin to integrate the spiritual value of self-care into their ministry.
Beringia Zen, CSJA, PhD, is a chaplain and Catholic coordinator at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, MO.