For the patients and staff at Baylor Medical Center in Waxahachie, Baylor’s dedicated team of chaplains and volunteers are sometimes the only calm in the middle of the storm.
From the pain of tragedy and loss to the joy of new life and second chances, the one full time and five assistant, or PRN, chaplains are on call to lend a heartfelt prayer, a helping hand and a shoulder to lean on, no matter what.
“They do whatever they’re called upon to do, in whatever circumstances,” Sheryl Sullivan with the marketing department at Baylor Medical Center in Waxahachie said.
And through the helping and healing, full-time chaplain Jerry Carter and PRN chaplains Ruth Collins, Dan McClinton, Craig Zoller, Susan Ellenwood and Melissa Bidding personally experience the full spectrum of emotions, Carter said.
“I can walk out of a tragedy in the Emergency Room and go up and celebrate new life with those parents (in Maternity),” he said, adding that after 18 years as a chaplain, 17 of them in Waxahachie, for him the hospital is full of memories.
The ones that stand out are almost always sad.
“There’s just so many stories of things that occur that are tragic,” he said. “I’ll never forget some of those things.”
Carter tells the story of helping a traveling mother call her husband to tell him of their infant’s sudden death. Other stories, such as making the call to the family of a young man who died in a fall, and in another instance comforting two families connected to the same fatal automobile accident, also stand out.
Collins recalled sitting all night with a woman at her dying husband’s bedside who didn’t want to be alone.
“She asked me not to leave,” Collins said, “My heart went out to her.”
McClinton said he was deeply affected as he comforted a man who had survived an automobile accident his wife and children had not.
“That was the hardest case I’ve ever had to work,” he said.
During times of loss and confusion, chaplains provide not only spiritual and emotional support, but help guide families and patients through the often daunting decisions and paper work regarding living wills, life support, hospice care and autopsy arrangements.
“We feel like our decedent care is an important ministry because we are able to help a family in the initial hours following a loved one’s death,” Carter said.
The PRN chaplains, who serve as on-call support during night and weekend hours on an as-needed basis, are usually called in under hard circumstances, Carter said.
“Most of what they do is the difficult thing,” he said. “They are such a valuable part of the delivery of spiritual care. I don’t know what we would do without them. God just sent them to be part of what we’re doing here.”
Collins, who has served on the Waxahachie staff for two years, said end-of-life decisions are among the most difficult she works through as a chaplain.
“One of the hardest things is when a family has to make a decision whether or not to withdraw life support,” she said.
Although on the one hand the chaplain acts as a rock and support for the family, he or she sympathizes and empathizes with them as well, she added, “being strong for them, but then feeling what they’re feeling.”
“There’s no pat answers,” she said. “Each individual case is different.”
She added that sometimes, “There’s nothing you can say except just to be there and listen.”
On the other hand, the chaplains also have the opportunity to share with families in times of joy and relief.
“We see wonderful things happen,” Carter said, recalling a story about one young man who spent two months in ICU after a car accident. “He walked out of this hospital,” Carter said, “Those are the kinds of things you enjoy seeing.”
Carter also considers counseling and supporting staff an important aspect to his responsibilities as chaplain. After helping a family deal with the loss of a loved one, the staff who have come to know the patient must go through the same process.
“When it’s all over, that’s when the nurses and doctors may have their own grieving to go through,” Carter said.
Sullivan said common perceptions of medical staff as jaded by their work are simply untrue.
“People think doctors and nurses get hardened,” she said, but, “They have a gift to help patients. They do emotionally invest in all of those patients.”
Carter added, “I’ve seen nurses and doctors alike weep over the death of a patient.”
The chaplains are also careful to monitor their own state of mind, and the Baylor chaplain system has strong ties and support systems, Carter said.
“We make sure that we remain healthy emotionally and spiritually,” he said. “We support each other,” noting that Waxahachie’s relatively small hospital has the benefit of the entire Baylor system’s resources and support.
Mark Grace, director of pastoral care for the health system, said sharing between chaplains, or any spiritual leaders, is a vital part of leading an effective ministry.
“The profession of ministry is one of those high risk professions for burn-out, for emotional pain and difficulty, and the reason is ministers tend to get isolated,” he said. “The mark of a real professional is knowing when to stop and get consultation.”
He added, “We have a community of people who really care for each other…It keeps us from beginning to think that we’re all by ourselves.”
Carter and the PRN chaplains debrief and support each other through difficult cases, and help from other chaplains in the system is also available. Carter recalled how one Sunday, distressed by the death of a child the night before, he could not stay still through a church service. After taking a long walk, he called another chaplain in the Baylor system for support.
“I need to know what I need to do to take care of myself,” he said.
Collins said the assistant chaplains seek support from Carter and from each other.
“We debrief with the other chaplains, just to be able to unload and ask advice, have prayer,” she said.
Individuals are drawn to the chaplaincy for different reasons, yet all bring a unique background and heart to the position.
McClinton, who has served as a PRN chaplain for five years, originally trained to be a volunteer chaplain after being visited by one when he was hospitalized in serious condition while traveling with his wife.
“A young lady that was a Catholic chaplain came into the room. She ministered to me and my wife like no one else has ever ministered to me,” he said.
Having been hospitalized and facing difficult decisions, even the possibility of his own death, helps McClinton better serve the patients he works with who are facing a similar situation, he said.
“I really didn’t understand the patient until I became one,” he said.
Another PRN chaplain, former long haul trucker Zoller, started as a chaplain for truckers before becoming involved in the medical field.
“I fell in love with doing hospital chaplaincy,” he said, though he remains involved in trucker ministries as well, and said medical patients and long distance truckers face many of the same issues: loneliness, lack of spiritual support and separation from their families.
“They need a listening ear,” he said. “They have a lot of similar type needs.”
Collins said she first became interested in the chaplain program after inviting Carter to speak several times to a class she taught on children’s ministries at Southwestern about children grief and loss.
“Something just began stirring in my heart,” she said, adding she now plans to complete training to become a full time chaplain, as does Zoller.
Carter was a Southern Baptist pastor for 12 years, and said a desire to expand his ministry led him to pursue a chaplaincy.
“I had gotten involved with a volunteer chaplaincy program, and I just loved what I did as a volunteer chaplain,” he said. “I began exploring what it would take to become a hospital chaplain, and I applied for the clinical pastoral education at Baylor and I was accepted. I started that in September 1989.”
Becoming a full time or PRN chaplain in a Baylor hospital requires a draining, but rewarding, stint in the system’s clinical pastoral education program, Grace said. Many of the students who pass through the program are trained ministers, but CPE focuses on building skills and experiences most, even experienced pastors, may not have learned yet.
“They’re used to going to seminary and they’re used to working long hours, (but) they were never tired in seminary like they will be tired halfway though a unit of CPE,” Grace said. “It’s not just about losing sleep, it’s about emotional intensity.”
Students in the program go through an orientation, and will continue to meet in a small group throughout the unit to share experiences and develop skills such as active listening, spiritual evaluation and how to help families and individuals cope with accidents or difficult diagnoses.
Such skills are important in any ministry area, and Grace said most graduates of the program take their newfound talents with them to pastor churches or into academic positions.
“(We’re) not necessarily focused on equipping people to become chaplains. The focus is to help ministers develop the kind of skills for one on one and what I call acute and complex spiritual care,” he said.
However, throughout the CPE units, which last between three to four months, students spend the majority of their time visiting and working with real patients and reporting back to a supervising chaplain— between 25 and 28 hours a week on top of 10 to 12 spent working with colleagues for a total of 400 hours a unit.
“It’s never just classroom,” Grace said. “In clinical learning, you always study theory in the light of what’s happening. These people are doing supervised ministry.”
PRN chaplains have completed at least one unit of the CPE training, while full time chaplains have completed four, each building on the previous units to further develop skills and knowledge.
Carter said Baylor has set a world-wide standard for clinical pastoral care.
“My greatest learning experience was the year of pastoral care education I received at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas,” he said. “It was a tremendous growth experience.”
To Grace, the most important part of the CPE program is to train ministers not only to reach out to those in need, but to know how to go about doing it.
“We all care, but we all don’t care effectively,” he said. “People learn about themselves and about what it means to help people effectively. When they leave their program, they actually begin to have impact on folks.”
As part of his responsibilities, Carter said he makes a point to try to provide at least one visit by a chaplain to every patient who passes through the hospital, no matter how nondescript a stay may seem, and nearly 3,000 patient and family visits were recorded for the Waxahachie ministry last year.
“Most people are in for routine things,” Carter said.
Although Carter comes from a Southern Baptist background, he says part of a chaplain’s job is to facilitate a patient’s spiritual needs, no matter their faith.
“Baylor has had a commitment to dealing with people of all faiths and those with none,” he said. On an individual basis, the chaplain will often talk with the patient about their spiritual background and offer to call an Iman, Rabbi or other spiritual leader.
“I also let them know that I’m a Christian, and that I would like to keep them in my prayers,” he said, noting that the Waxahachie ministry saw 25 professions of faith and 38 rededications to Christ last year.
Carter added that in a health crisis situation, many people may be experiencing a spiritual crisis as well.
“They may ask things like, ‘Why did God let this happen to me?’ or ‘Where’s God in my pain?’” he said.
“God doesn’t need any defense,” Carter said, explaining that instead of directly responding to patients’ doubts, he uses open ended questions to help patients find their own answers.
“I want them to discover their own spiritual resources,” he said. “(I) let them talk about their own theology and their own faith. By using reflective and summary type statements, I’m able to draw people out.”
Carter also provides support for the hospital by praying over new centers and services the hospital offers as well as the staff. Each year during a week honoring the hospital’s nurses, he prays over their hands with anointing oil, asking that they will be gentle and strong in the care of their patients.
“It’s important for all of us to realize that health care is a sacred vocation,” he said. “It also requires deep compassion and caring that is above and beyond what most people would provide for a stranger.”
Carter, with help from other chaplains from around North Texas, also trains volunteers to act as lay chaplains in the hospital. Volunteers maintain their own ministries, but can use Carter as a resource or make referrals to him.
“We believe that people who are willing to commit themselves to some training should have their own ministries,” he said.
The Baylor Health Care System is committed to the spiritual health of its patients and staff, Carter said, and he and the PRN and volunteer chaplains all pray, guide and serve for good reason. Being a chaplain is a secure and rewarding position, Carter said, which contributes to a high level of competition for chaplaincy positions.
“It’s highly meaningful and satisfying work. You’re dealing with people in the most intense times in their lives, and you’re able to really see what chaplain ministry does in the lives of people,” he said, adding that the chaplaincy also tends to be more open to women leaders than other ministry opportunities.
“We have a lot of women who have excelled in chaplain ministry,” he said.
While the pastor of a church may move every few years, chaplaincy positions tend to be more permanent.
“If you’re a chaplain in a hospital, you can set down your roots like we have in Waxahachie,” he said.
Grace noted that being involved in the community as a chaplain isn’t an inevitability— it’s a goal.
“(Carter) is just part of that community, and I have been so impressed with him,” he said. “He really has made himself part of the community, and I think that’s what’s made the difference.”
For Carter, he stays in the ministry because he’s doing what he loves.
“I want to get up and come to work every day. I want to be here doing what I do to assist patients and their families through the most difficult times in their lives,” he said. “Not everything that we do is joyful, but it is satisfying to me to be here.”
Carter summed up the reasons why he continues to be a chaplain in a poem he wrote a few years ago about his ministry.
“What keeps me coming to work upon a rising?/Each day is a day of opportunity and grace,” he wrote. “The Privilege of watching God at work,/That’s what keeps me in the race.”