Advocacy Tips for Chaplains
As chaplains, we talk about advocacy a great deal. We advocate for the inclusion of spirituality in health care, in prisons, and other organizations. We advocate for the care of our patients and families as whole people: body, mind and spirit.
Larger-scale advocacy in the public sphere is often more challenging. We must learn to advocate for the profession of chaplaincy as a whole, so that we may care more effectively for the populations we serve. Advocacy is a way to make our voices heard, to contribute to the public conversation, and to clarify the evolving profession of chaplaincy. I would also argue that advocacy is a form of self-care, because in speaking up we claim ownership of our profession rather than sitting at the sidelines, feeling misunderstood. So how can we best advocate for our patients and our profession?
These advocacy tips are by no means exhaustive. They arise from my experience serving in hospice and acute care for 10 years, and from recent conversations with Marylin Murphy, the area vice president of operations at Amedisys and Laura Mosby, the director of organizational integrity at Suncoast Hospice.
Let's refrain from saying “No one understands chaplaincy” and focus on educating others, one person at a time. How will administrators, physicians, nurses, social workers, and others understand chaplaincy if we chaplains can't articulate what we do? We have the burden--and the opportunity--of changing others' perceptions of the value of professional chaplaincy. For this, we need what is often called an “elevator pitch.” If a stranger came up to you in an elevator and said, “What do chaplains do?” how would you respond? If a social worker said to you, “I'm not sure why we need chaplains, because we are all spiritual people,” (true story!) how would you answer?
Take an honest inventory of your professional skills. If you want a simple technique to use, divide a sheet of paper into three columns: Things I can do well, Things I enjoy and Things I would like to learn. Maybe you excel in grief support, but have little experience with dementia care. Perhaps you are great at starting creative projects but struggle to manage your time. Once you can articulate your professional priorities, then work with your supervisor to set learning goals. If you improve your skill set, your role as a chaplain will expand as your abilities grow.
Use clear chaplaincy documentation language that shows the depth of what we do. “Ministry of presence” is important at times, but let's face it: anyone can sit by someone's bed and hold hands. Why should the CEO of a hospital pay a trained chaplain to do this when a volunteer could do it for free? We must share, both in conversation and in documentation, the beauty and complexity of our work. Our best chaplaincy care is truly a mix of stillness and action, of assessment and intervention, of silence and speech, of being and doing. We are Martha and Mary at the same time, so to speak. We hold sacred space, we facilitate grief and healing, and we care for the whole person. We challenge stereotypes of what it means to be “religious” and we add nuance to cultural issues. We address a patient's fear of death, we help a mother say good-bye, we pray for comfort in the midst of pain and loss. This is our gift. What are the hopes, needs, and resources of those we serve? We should be able to articulate the spiritual needs of those we care for, and display the utmost respect for people of all faiths.
Offer inclusive opening reflections at interdisciplinary staff meetings, rounds, and other gatherings. Before each IDT meeting, I read everything from secular poems to Eastern Orthodox liturgical texts, Anne Lamott, Thomas Merton, Atul Gawande, and more. I play music ranging from Krishna Das to Eric Whitacre and George Gershwin. I lead my staff in chair yoga and guided meditations. I follow seasonal themes, current events, and liturgical cycles (for example, my Jewish co-worker and I told the Passover story and taught our whole hospice staff to sing “Dayenu.” While most of them are not singers, they humored us and it was a lovely opening.) This serves as cultural education and fun at the same time.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. Rather than suffering quietly under administrators or human resources professionals who are not experts on chaplaincy, gather your thoughts and help them out. If the description of your pastoral care department is outdated, volunteer to change the content. Is your job description inaccurate? If so, offer to rewrite it. If your supervisory evaluation for chaplaincy is based on social work (as mine was in hospice), offer to rewrite it. Better yet, utilize the resources of professional chaplaincy organizations; for example, APC has several job descriptions available on the “For Administrators” page.
Plan what to say during interdisciplinary team meetings or rounds. If you get tongue-tied, then write down some phrases in advance, e.g. “The patient is struggling with the transition from curative treatment to palliative care; she worries that she is giving up or 'playing God' and not allowing a miracle. As she is a committed Christian, we are exploring the meaning of miracles, healing and trust, utilizing her favorite Scripture verses as a means of easing this transition.” Use active verbs: identify, explore, facilitate, deepen, or connect. We must be clear about what we are doing. How are our chaplaincy interventions different from those of local clergy or a friendly visitor?
Know your acronyms! Are you familiar with NHPCO, NCHPP, AAHPM, ACPE, APC, NAJC, NACC, CAPC, GWISH? Familiarize yourself with these organizations, as well as your state and local collaboratives. There is so much out there to help us better serve our organizations. Make use of the extensive resources available online. These organizations offer standards of practice and guidelines for spiritual care that can be great conversation starters with your administrators.
Initiate collaborations with local funeral homes, clergy groups, civic organizations, senior centers, homeless shelters, caregiver support groups, and retreat centers. These organizations are always looking for speakers about grief and bereavement, advanced care planning, end-of-life care, stories of spiritual inspiration, caring for people with Alzheimer's, caregiver stress, talking to children about death...and the list goes on and on. Reaching out to your community also serves as informal marketing for your organization, promoting your role as a chaplain leader both within and beyond your organization. Speak about what you know, and speak from your heart.
Stay educated and connected. Attend conferences whenever time and money permits. From national chaplaincy conferences to those at your local hospital or university, there are many chances to connect. Follow-up with the people you meet, and utilize LinkedIn as a resource to stay connected to colleagues and up to date on research. If you want to publish, start with a poster at one of the professional chaplaincy conferences. If you would like to become more involved with an organization like APC, simply volunteer for a role rather than waiting to be asked. Little by little, the more you contribute, the more you will be asked to do.
Be the chaplain for your office or organization. We have a unique role, in that we care for everyone we work with--not just patients, but colleagues. Stay in tune with the morale of your department, offer confidential support when needed, and take the high road with office gossip and politics. When our organizations experience changes or layoffs, we can address these difficulties with the staff and provide a supportive outlet for stress.
Seek out a chaplain mentor. The APC and other chaplaincy organizations offer formal and informal mentorship programs. Nothing helps you make progress faster than having someone else help you to create a plan and stick to it. Get together with a colleague who you think could help you develop some goals. Set up regular meetings or update sessions to apprise your mentor of your progress. Ask for guidance or some additional inspiration when you get stuck.
Don’t be a “lone ranger.” Chaplaincy can be a lonely profession (speaking as the only chaplain for my hospice office, I spend hours driving to visit patients and sometimes eat lunch in my car with NPR as my only companion.) Get in the habit of eating lunch with a colleague, calling your favorite social worker just to check in, and be intentional about staying connected. Collaborate with the team and do joint visits.
Celebrate your successes and write down your stories. The world is hungry for stories of meaningful spiritual care. Offer to write a “chaplain's corner” reflection for your organization’s newsletter, start a blog, or contribute to a journal. We may be accustomed to the profound work we do, but the “outside world” can truly learn from our experiences caring for the dying, facilitating difficult conversations, addressing trauma and reconnecting people with spirituality.
Nourish your spirit. That includes taking vacations, cultivating your spiritual life, working with a spiritual director, and going on a religious retreat. It involves continual discernment of your calling as a chaplain and as a person. Identify areas of compassion fatigue by taking the free online Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) quiz. Make time for music, gardening, Scrabble, fishing, Zumba or whatever else makes you happy.
And finally…take a step back, give thanks, and remember why we do this ministry. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments below, and keep up the good work.
Sarah Byrne-Martelli, BCC, currently serves as staff chaplain with Beacon Hospice, an Amedisys company, in Beverly, MA. She is endorsed and commissioned by the Orthodox Church in America. Sarah received her Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 2002. She also works as a voice teacher at the Winthrop School of Performing Arts and is a member of the Boston Byzantine Choir