Deciphering the role of clergy for patients in local hospitals


 “There’s no staff chaplain at Winchester hospital. Any chaplaincy work they need to have done, they rely on community chaplains, but we’re never called,” said Reverend Sue McCullough of the Anglican Parish for Morrisburg, Iroquois and Riverside Heights.

Frustrated and disheartened with the Winchester District Memorial Hospital, McCullough is just one of three area ministers who have come forward to share their concerns.

During a May 24th phone interview, McCullough described what she sees as some of the most pressing issues between hospital and clergy, while Reverend Janet Evans of Iroquois United Church and Reverend Daniel Hayward of Trinity United Church in Ingleside met with The Leader on June 7th to share their concerns.

“Honestly, all we’re trying to do is find out who in our congregations are in hospital and want to be seen,” said Hayward.

According to Hayward, the Cornwall Community Hospital (CCH) has a much better system than Winchester. “In Cornwall, they do have a chaplain who is an employee of the hospital.”

“They have an on call schedule with a pager,” he continued. “We have access to lists of people from our denomination in the hospital, which is password protected.”

“They don’t have either of those” in Winchester. “We don’t have easy access.”

Hayward, along with Evans, explained that Winchester District Memorial Hospital did, at one time, provide paper lists of patients for approved clergy, but those were mostly out-of-date lists and, unfortunately, those have disappeared now as well.

“There are lay pastoral visitors that have more access to the patient list than the clergy do,” said McCullough, referring to Winchester’s spiritual volunteers.

According to an April press release from the hospital, there are six spiritual volunteers who have completed training and become active in the hospital. 

“Training includes aspects of every faith ranging from Islam to Christianity to Judaism and many more. Beyond considerations of faith, spiritual volunteers must also be prepared to interact with patients who may be in the worst crisis of their lives. They attend monthly training sessions to learn new communication techniques and discuss best practices.”

Both Hayward and Evans agreed with McCullough’s charge saying that in contrast to the clergy, the spiritual volunteers have “no restrictions.” 

In addition to this, McCullough said, “my concern as well as the concern of others is that social workers and nurses are stepping into the role of clergy. That’s not to malign social workers or nurses, but their focus should be on something else.”

“They seem to think that we’re not necessary,” she continued. “They seem to think that we’re there to evangelize, but that’s not why.”

“They aren’t making use of the community clergy in the way that they could.”

According to Evans, it’s not necessarily a question of us or them, but rather a simple question of access to those who want their minister on hand.

“I know many fine nurses and believe that they, and we, can have a role in creating peace of mind and body and spirit,” said Evans.

“Sometimes, the least likely person can minister to another human being. I use a pharmacy in Brockville and the cashier brings me joy every time I pick up a prescription.”

Evans pointed out that the admissions questionnaire for the Winchester hospital does ask patients what their denomination is and whether they might like a visit from clergy. Unfortunately, she said, “it’s not asked in many cases and when it is, it’s sometimes not followed up on.”

“If they don’t know it’s available to ask for,” said McCullough, “they’re not going to ask for it.”

“I usually don’t find out (a congregant is in hospital) unless family calls me,” said Evans, pointing out that not all of her congregants have family.

The number one complaint from congregants, according to Evans, is “you don’t come see me.”

“Our issue, mainly,” she reiterated, “is just access to our own congregants in a timely and accurate fashion.”

She also pointed out that “when we’re doing that kind of work, we should be open to all (people) and not trying to convert.” 

“We’re continually told we can’t have this for the privacy act,” said Evans with respect to patient lists, but, as McCullough pointed out, “we sign confidentiality forms.”

Hayward would point to Cornwall Community Hospital, which is “governed by the same act as Winchester.”

“There are very few cases where someone has fallen through the cracks and we’re always able to find people in Cornwall,” said Hayward, applauding CCH’s “timely and accurate information.”

“All of this stuff is doable,” added Hayward who has a background in computer systems.

In addition to lack of access to patient information, clergy has been told that there is no money at Winchester District Memorial Hospital to employ a member of the clergy for a full-time or even a part-time position.

Hayward also pointed out that the chapel/prayer room is most often used for storage.

“Having come from an area and worked in a hospital where clergy’s assistance is valued greatly,” said McCullough, “and come to a place where it appears that it is not, it gets to be a bit frustrating.”

As for how things are functioning under the direction of new chief executive officer Cholly Boland, Evans said, “he does seem a little more open.” 

While “nothing has changed for the last 10 years,” she said, “it has improved somewhat with the new CEO. I do believe Cholly has at least tried to make things better.”

On June 20th, when asked for his take on how the Winchester District Memorial Hospital handles patient/clergy interaction, Boland said, “we’re here to serve patients. We’re here to respond to patients.”

He reported that “data from the patients that we survey shows at least 90 per cent of the time the patients who want pastoral care service say it’s addressed to their satisfaction.”

“I’m not aware from patients who are churchgoers of any issues,” he said.

“We’re a hospital. We look after patients. What we’re most concerned about is being able to respond to patient requests.”

The privacy issue, he said, is not just about the law, but also about showing respect for patients.

“We survey our patients very often,” said Boland, “we kind of have a read on our patients.”

Those who request visits from clergy are in the minority, said Boland, but when a patient does request a visit, “if and only when they say ‘yes we would’, we contact the appropriate clergy and it’s up to the clergy to respond.”

He pointed out that it is the task of the pastoral care committee to deal with any clergy-related concerns that arise.

Also on June 20th, Hayward updated The Leader on changes to some of the aforementioned issues: “Winchester now has paper lists sorted by denomination again. These are in the emergency department, can be printed on demand by the emergency ward clerk, or are used by the chief liaison officer volunteer services who calls clergy who are specifically requested by a patient.”

“So, the Winchester system is now closer to that used in Cornwall, although Cornwall’s is viewed on a computer screen.”

“In both cases,” he continued, “my chief wish is that these lists, which are all generated from a database and could be viewable online with proper security, be available off-site so clergy do not have to drive to the hospital to see them.”

He also reported that “the hospital now has plans to redecorate the Reflection Room (chapel) as a proper quiet space and to stop use of the room for storage.” During Hayward’s visit to the hospital on June 20th, he discovered that the room now “only had furniture.”

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