Deciphering the role of clergy in hospitals

Dear Editor,

I read with interest the article describing the challenges local clergy are facing with providing pastoral care at Winchester Hospital.  It is unfortunate that Winchester does not have a paid Spiritual Care Coordinator. 

As the Spiritual Care Manager at the Brockville General Hospital (BGH), I can describe our program here and how the community clergy are supported and invited to be partners in care at our hospital.  Even though Brockville is in the Southeast LHIN, and Winchester is in Champlain, our catchment areas overlap at times.  

At BGH we are fortunate to have two paid staff positions in Spiritual Care, a part-time manager, and a part-time chaplain, both certified multifaith chaplains.  

Although my budget is very small, it is amazing what we are able to accomplish on a shoestring.  We certainly use the teamwork model!  We have seven volunteer chaplains, who each give between one and four hours of their time per week doing pastoral visits.  

Also, we have about fifteen active spiritual care volunteers, from all denominations who do many tasks for the department, including friendly visits.  These volunteers have taken our own 30-hour pastoral care course.  

We do not randomly visit patients in the hospital, nor do we allow proselytizing of any kind.  (This means that no clergy tries to “convert” a patient, but that all patients of all faiths—or no faith—are cared for equally.) 

Upon admission, patients are asked, “Would you like to have your religion recorded”, and “Would you welcome a visit from the spiritual care team?”  Both are good questions and leaves the decision up to the patient, and also allows them to accept the offer for spiritual care when they may not be “religious!”

Add to this our close relationship to area clergy—all Brockville and area clergy are encouraged to complete a hospital orientation, which in turn provides them with a hospital ID card and free parking!  Free parking encourages clergy to visit, and when clergy come in to the hospital they can get the computer-generated patient list for their own denomination.  The hospital ID card enables staff to know visiting clergy are welcome as part of the health team for their individual parishioner, the patient.  

We regularly provide workshops and education to area clergy and their pastoral teams.  Our in-depth pastoral care course is offered to the churches at a nominal fee so that they do not have to provide their own training for visitation teams.

Now comes the questions concerning “privacy” and “confidentiality”.  

Most of the time this can be dealt with easily by receiving “prior permission”.  Of course hospital staff cannot randomly give out any personal information about a patient. But whenever a patient or power-of-attorney gives permission for their clergy to be involved in a patient’s care it is okay.  What medical staff need to know is that it is the desire of the patient for their minister/priest/rabbi etc. to be part of their team.  

It is my understanding that this permission can be verbal.  If the patient is conscious and cognitive, they can tell the nursing staff that their spiritual care provider can visit, ask questions, advocate on their behalf, or whatever…

Clergy cannot visit their parishioners in the hospital if they don’t know they are there!  I often advise clergy to preach from the pulpit, (or include in the bulletin) that if they want their minister to know they are having health problems they have to tell them, or give permission to their family to tell them.  That’s all it takes!

At Brockville General Hospital we deal with many patients who are in very difficult and stressful circumstances.  We are known in the area for our excellent palliative care and grief and bereavement follow-up. 

We are fortunate at BGH that spiritual care providers are accepted as part of the health team.  Chaplains attend patient rounds and are often consulted for issues that are not specifically religious, that may overlap with social, and emotional concerns.  

We also care for the spiritual needs of the staff. This often includes stress management and grief and loss for their own concerns. 

Many times we have heard how receiving compassionate support through spiritual care has made such a difference in a patient and family’s experience.

Janet Stark,

Spiritual Care Manager & Chaplain,

Brockville General Hospital


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