Healing for the spirit with Pagan hospital chaplains

Terence P Ward —  April 20, 2016 — 2 Comments

TWH — Chaplains tend to work in places where religious needs are felt strongly: military bases, prisons, hospitals. In the past, The Wild Hunt has spotlighted some of the work of Pagan prison and military chaplains, but it is the hospital chaplains that most people are likely to encounter at some point in their lives. As the need for Pagan Chaplains grow, more people are doing this very specialized work. Cherry Hill Seminary, a Pagan-specific learning institution, and other interfaith-based seminaries have well-established programs and classes that train people in this area.

We reached out to a number of Pagans who work are working as chaplains in the health care field, and we received responses from four members of Circle Sanctuary. Rev. Selena Fox aired a podcast focusing on hospital chaplains just a few weeks ago, which includes in-depth discussions with several such chaplains affiliated with Circle Sanctuary. Michelle Castle and Tiffany Andes are both studying health care chaplaincy at Iliff School of Theology, and will soon hold Masters of Divinity degrees. Fox’s own experience as a public Pagan minister predates Pagans serving in official capacities, and she’s had to develop a wide variety of ministerial skills as a consequence of being a pioneer. Additionally, we spoke with Cernowain Greenman (Rev. Tim Staker), who is reportedly the only full-time Pagan hospital chaplain who is board certified.

[Photo Credit: youtube]

[Photo Credit: rolensfx / youtube]

The Wild Hunt: Prison and military chaplains have experience in working with specific populations. What is unique about the hospital population, and the needs you’re asked to serve there?

Rev. Selena Fox: I have done ministry service in prisons, at military installations, on campuses, at hospices, and in a variety of healthcare settings as part of my work through Circle Sanctuary. . . . In addition to providing direct spiritual care to those in need in various institutions, part of my work today involves doing diversity education and Pagan religious accommodation training with chaplains and administrative staff in various types of institutions.

Each category of institutional setting has its own types of protocols and considerations. It is essential in doing spiritual care in an institutional setting that you learn about the system and its regulations and that you abide by them.

In doing work in a hospital setting, in addition to providing support to a patient and interfacing with staff, it is common to also connect with the patient’s support network of family & friends. Both the patient and her/his loved ones are usually impacted by the hospitalization and in need of spiritual care. When I do ministry in a prison or military installation, rarely do I connect with loved ones of those there.

Tiffany Andes: Hospital populations are unique in that their needs can vary greatly, but are also almost always directly related to health concerns. Either they are in an inpatient situation of some sort, or they may be receiving long-term treatment for cancer or other similar cases. The questions and concerns that come up around these criteria generally have to do with managing illness, family connections, trauma, and in some cases, moving into hospice and end of life situations. As a chaplain you have to be open to holding space for those discussions and being a companion to patients and their families without judgement during some of the most stressful times in their lives.

Michelle Castle: Hospital chaplaincy is unique in that we are able to be present for individuals, families, and staff during times of physical crisis. Care is variable depending on whether the crisis is acute and emergent, or if they have been dealing with long-term illness. We also are in the midst of all stages of life, being present when life comes into the world and at the end of life.

Cernowain Greenman: By definition, chaplains are clergy to people who have been displaced from their home, whether because of military deployment, illness, prison, education at university, government service, etc.

Hospital chaplains serve the spiritual needs of people who find themselves in medical institutions because of a serious illness or injury. Patients can be lonely, afraid, anxious, frustrated, angry, etc., and often without emotional support. They are sometimes disconnected from their spiritual family as well, missing ritual gatherings and in need of spiritual support. Chaplains are specially trained spiritual leaders who help facilitate the meeting of these needs.

TWH: Given how important it is for a chaplain to be able to serve someone of any religion, how important is it to have Pagan hospital chaplains specifically?

SF: Those serving as a chaplain in institutional settings, regardless of their religious orientation and religious organization endorsement, need to be skilled in communicating with and providing support to those of different religions as well as those who consider themselves spiritual and not religious and those who are humanist, atheist, agnostic and/or freethinkers.

However, it is important to have Pagans in chaplaincy work for several reasons: (1) to be available to share information as needed about Pagan religions/spirituality to other chaplains and staff in an institution that may providing support to Pagan patients and/or Pagan family and friends of a patient and may be interacting with Pagan ministers visiting patient and loved ones, (2) to help Pagans not in the hospital understand effective ways of working with hospital systems as a whole and chaplains and spiritual care staff in particular in getting needs met for themselves and loved ones when the need arises, (3) to diversity and educate the profession of chaplaincy in an increasingly pluralistic world, and (4) to help Paganism achieve equal rights and respect in society as a whole.

TA: Having Pagan hospital chaplains speaks to the higher goal of true interfaith representation within institutionalized ministry. While it can be argued that chaplains of any faith should be able to serve patients regardless of faith orientation, the fact remains that as a minority faith Pagans still feel stigmatized in many common societal settings. Having chaplain representation in such an important location emphasizes equality among faith traditions.

MC: I think that Tiffany answered this question beautifully.

CG: While many chaplains are willing and able to provide emotional support to Pagan patients, if the chaplain is Christian or of another faith, they usually are unable to meet the spiritual needs of a Pagan, since they lack the understanding of Pagan spirituality and ritual. A Pagan chaplain can understand and help meet the spiritual needs of other Pagans much better than non-Pagan chaplains.

The Pagan community has grown to a point where many find themselves hospitalized, sometimes far from home, and in need of spiritual support. Pagan hospital chaplains are needed now, especially for Pagan patients.

TWH: What do you do if you’re completely unfamiliar with the religion of a new patient? Is it different if the unfamiliar religion is a Pagan one?

SF: When I worked as a psychotherapist in a hospital and in an outpatient mental health clinic and had a new patient, I invited the patient to share religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical perspectives and orientation as part of intake. I used the same approach whether the patient was Pagan or not.

TA: In the majority of cases, if a patient has a specific religious request (communion, priestly sacraments, etc) the requests will go directly to the representative of that denomination. In general settings, you may come across a religion that isn’t common, but one that we have received education on and we are familiar with. If I need clarification I always ask the patient how I can best serve them–is it through prayer, reflective meditation, chanting, etc? Would they prefer I put them in contact with a community representative of their own faith? I have yet to come across a Pagan patient that I could not connect with or assist in some way to meet their spiritual needs.

MC: I consider this to be an opportunity to learn, and that even when we are familiar with a specific religion or tradition, that each person has their own unique beliefs and values within the traditions. I love to learn more about how others experience their faith and as a chaplain, I am able to be present to listen to how one processes a crisis and how that intersects with their faith. For me being able to be present to one and meeting them where they are is important and I can find points of connection with any tradition.

CG: When I meet new patients, as I am talking with them, I do what is called a spiritual assessment to determine the patient’s sources of inner strength, how they make meaning of their illness, and what resources they have to help them through this difficult time in their lives. I help them get in touch with whatever it is that strengthens their spirit—which may or may not be religious.

I keep a number of apps on my phone of different religious traditions to help me—from rosary prayers to recitations of the Qur’an to Buddhist meditation timers. For Pagans I have apps that utilize Tarot, Runes, bird songs and Nature sounds, and even one for candle lighting (since most hospitals do not allow real candles to be lit). But I also have battery candles, as well as a collection of healing stones. In addition, I have created printable booklets with words of encouragement for a dozen different faiths, including one for followers of Earth-based religions. If I am unable to meet specific religious needs, I will invite a religious leader from the community to come in to help, with the patient’s permission.

Most importantly, I also offer to be a supportive companion with patients in their healing journey, no matter what spiritual path they are on.

[Photo Credit: Ahs856 / Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Ahs856 / Wikimedia]

TWH: Are you prepared in case you are yourself unexpectedly hospitalized?

SF: My hospital ministry work has helped me prepare for hospitalizations, anticipated as well as unexpected for me and for loved ones. I have been able to take my understanding of healthcare systems to get my needs as a Pagan accommodated, such having a small healing altar in my hospital room & having soothing Pagan Celtic harp recording played during an operation. I also have been able to interface with the spiritual care department at the hospital to make certain that ritual with friends could happen in my room.

TA: I was in fact unexpectedly hospitalized in July of last year for a week. I refused any visits from the chaplain’s office.

MC: I have a great support group, from family and close friends that I can reach out to if I am in need. I feel that being in the healthcare field for many years, that I am uniquely prepared from the medical aspects of care, having a living will and directives. I know how to navigate the healthcare system as well as how to incorporate my specific spiritual needs.

CG: I have an altar at home that can be taken in to the hospital with relative ease, if I were to be hospitalized for a lengthy period. And I have in my contacts phone numbers of local Pagan friends, some who are clergy, for my support. When I have been registered as a patient, I let the hospital clerk know my spiritual preference is Wiccan and ask that my beliefs be respected since my spirituality is my main resource for getting well.

TWH: Could you describe what you’ve done to prepare for your own spiritual wellbeing?

SF: For those of us involved in ministering to others, it is essential that we also do spiritual care for ourselves. For me this includes beginning each day with a series of spiritual practices. I reflect on dreams and I do a Greet the Day Sacred Circle, Sacred Sphere ceremony. I also endeavor to spend time outside each day, usually in the form of a meditative nature walk. And, I take time away from mobile devices, screens, and other technology each day to commune with nature.

TA: Knowing how chaplaincy can take a lot out of you emotionally and physically, it is essential to have a self-care regimen for when you are not seeing patients. I try to rest as much as possible and get plenty of sunshine. I also do reflective meditation, spend time with my family, and exercise. I find it is absolutely true that we cannot be there for others if we have not first taken care of ourselves–and there is no shame in admitting that is a necessary component of the caregiving process.

MC: I think that having core spiritual practices that occur daily is important. My morning prayers and meditation help to keep me grounded and centered. The daily practices keep me connected with the Divine within me as well as without. The importance of self-care and creating space to take care of myself is highly needed. I have developed techniques that build in the time to breathe and to check in with myself throughout the day. This includes taking the time to reground and center before entering a room and after leaving a care conversation. This helps me to discern my own emotions and thoughts that are kept separate from the care-seekers. This also creates space for me to energetically clear and take only what is mine and to release what energy isn’t mine.

CG: In order to be a support to others I’ve found I have to keep a daily ritual time, usually in the morning. I make sure my chakras are in balance before I meet with any patient. I also find reading prepares my spirit, and lately I’ve been reading ancient Gnostic texts and the new biography of Doreen Valiente for inspiration.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Sharon Watkins

    Interesting artical. Just thought I’d let you know I too am a full time employed NHS pagan chaplain! :0)

  • David Oliver Kling

    I am a full time Hospice Chaplain in Northeast Ohio and on the faculty at Cherry Hill Seminary (chair of the Ministry, Advocacy, and Leadership department) and did a full time residency at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, WV.