By John Gillman
Suddenly, telechaplaincy is becoming the new normal. Healthcare groups across the country are scrambling to make pastoral care available virtually during a time when face-to-face interaction is risky for both chaplains and patients.
But even in the first century, Paul the Apostle faced the challenges of helping his fledgling congregations when he was not on the scene physically. He, of course, used letters to meet urgent pastoral care needs. Through his epistles he comforted those who were mourning the death of loved ones (1 Thess 4:13-18), reassured those who were distressed about their community members (Phil 2:25-30), and tried to resolve problems such as divisions among them, immoral behavior, abuses regarding the Eucharist, and doubts about the resurrection (1 Cor 1:10-17; 5:1-5; 11:17-34; 15:1-58).
Had mobile phones, laptops, and iPads been available in his day, Paul would undoubtedly have spent hours each day sending texts, making calls, and connecting visually with Facetime, Skype, and Zoom. If so, he would have appreciated both the benefits and the limitations of these resources in making effective pastoral connections. Paul, too, had to deal with isolation, although not of his own choosing; he was imprisoned more than once. Nonetheless, he was able to minister during his confinement by sending letters.
Today, spiritual care departments have used creative ways to connect remotely with patients and staff. For example, in a midsize hospital in the Rocky Mountain region, CPE resident Linnea was available in the interfaith chapel for any staff to drop in. While there, she received a text message from a staff member who had happened to notice her name badge a few days earlier. Linnea was pleasantly surprised that a text conversation ended up being quite substantive in bringing the Divine into the recent trauma the community experienced.
I’m grateful to her for permission to share this (details have been altered for anonymity). Here is a brief, edited segment of the extended dialogue (S = Staff; C = Chaplain):
S: Well it’s just me and my seven-year-old daughter. We don’t trust the earth [reference to recent earthquake]. But it made me rethink my priorities and where I stand with my faith.
C: Oh my. How is she doing? How did your family respond to the earthquake?
S: My family was just freaked out because they couldn’t get hold of me because I was at work for so many days in a row. But they are okay now. … I’ve been kind of wondering about my faith for some time.
C: May I ask what you have been wrestling with?
S: When someone from my church asked me what I believe, I wasn’t able to answer the question clearly. I feel confused at this point. But I am searching and just want to know who my God is.
C: That can be a very disorienting and vulnerable place to be. Who has your God been for you in the past?
S: God was the father and I think he still is, but I wonder more about who Jesus is and his role.
C: Sounds like your spiritual journey is taking you to unknown spaces that are entirely new to you. I truly believe God is a loving God who comes alongside us on our journey. Where do you find peace?
S: Lately, in reading the Bible or listening to some good music.
C: I too have found peace and comfort in reading daily devotionals with Bible verses. Have you heard the song “Let There Be Peace on Earth”?
S: I have not heard that song. I’ll look at it when I go for lunch. Thanks a lot.
C: This is the Holy Scripture app I have been using too. You might like it. [App is included.] I hope you have a blessed afternoon. Feel free to message me anytime. I am on iMobile and I will get back to you when I am back on.
S: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Often a remote pastoral care encounter will be brief, but in this case, the text messaging dialogue was extensive. As is the case throughout the country, the chaplains and CPE students at this hospital are engaged in remote ministry. One student sends a brief message to each staff member on the units he is covering to offer support and often receives a brief reply of appreciation. Another shared how she provided comfort and encouragement to a patient just before surgery. In the spirit of St. Paul, chaplains are finding many creative ways to connect remotely with patients and staff to provide significant pastoral care.
John Gillman, Ph.D., is a certified educator based in San Diego and author of the recently published resource What Does the Bible Say About Life and Death?