The connection is made, often in the absence of words, through a gentle touch, a long and loving exchange of truly seeing each other, holding a frail hand, reading a Psalm, or simply sitting and meditating by the sound of the laboring breath of the dying. It is a deep connection that I highly value and am honored to experience.” This is fulfillment for Stergios Skatharoudis, (C25, MA/MSW) who is called to hospice care.
With increasing numbers of people ending their life journey in a hospice facility there is a growing need for this ministry. Yet many take other directions as the challenges are significant. Harold Scott, adjunct professor for Ministry to the Dying and Bereaved and pastor of community care at Pearce Memorial Church in North Chili, N.Y., notes, “People who are dying are often depressed and struggling with their pending death. Many encounters result in conversations about how unfair life is and questions about why God didn’t heal them. There is often an overwhelming sense of loss and loneliness. Unresolved issues and broken relationships often come to the surface.” The challenge for Skatharoudis is in the cycle of making deep connections with the dying and their loved ones, followed by the need to detach once they have died, and then to form another connection that serves a new person and their needs and desires. He reflects, “In this ministry of loss, grief, joy, and celebration—all mingled into one—the challenge is to be present in all the moments.”
So of all the contexts for ministry why would someone commit to hospice care? Rev. Brenda Sherman (M.Div. ‘09), chaplain at Hospice and Palliative Care in Cheektowaga, N.Y., recalls that sense of “giving something back” during the bedside care that was part of her field education placements. Her subsequent work with cancer patients was, she shares, “divine preparation for something I didn’t even know was in my future.” She discovered how spiritually serene death could be as she facilitated family members in their bedside reminiscing of cherished memories and how that led to a room filled with laughter, a perceived response by the patient, and resulting joy for loved ones. At those moments of transition she has seen family bonds strengthened as they become united in their support of each other.
Skatharoudis had a different starting point noting, “I was compelled to serve in a hospice setting due to my own fear of death and so I started training to become a full-time volunteer.” In the midst of this fear he dealt with his own emotional issues, learning how to love being at the bedside of a dying client, and learning to honor and respect the mourning of friends and families. “I am fulfilled by sharing my humanity and humility with the dying,” he said. “This is a ministry where God's presence is felt deeply.
After years of ministry Scott continues to find joy in helping people to discover meaning and hope even as they are dying. “It is a gift to assist people in finding grace and forgiveness and in completing some of their final life’s tasks,” he says. “The knowledge that we have assisted in bringing closure to their earthly journey and prayerfully guiding them as they face eternity is very fulfilling.”
The cornerstones for hospice ministry are clear. Each person approaches death uniquely—some with a deep sense of peace, others with anger, depression and fear, while still others are withdrawn and quiet. The focus is on meeting them at each moment in the process and letting their needs, emotions and concerns guide the conversation and the care—allowing them the freedom to connect in any way they can for their spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing as they transition. Sherman particularly appreciates her own setting in which the collaboration of a nurse, social worker, chaplain, and physician bring their expertise together for respect-filled care that minimizes suffering and ensures a sense of worth.
Those inclined to hospice ministry are as different as those they serve but a few common qualities exist. They exhibit a large reservoir of compassion born out of mercy, encouragement, and a servant’s heart. The reality of death is handled in ways that maintain their own perspectives and beliefs while not imposing them on others. They become skillful at extended listening without trying to “fix” things and are accepting of the raw emotion of crying and anger. They see death as a stage of growth to be explored and are not afraid to talk about it.
Beyond the Seminary class on the dying and bereaved, Sherman finds the spiritual formation disciplines she developed at Northeastern useful for analyzing both her visits and herself as a hospice chaplain. Addressing the spiritually formative events in the lives of those she serves has been meaningful for them. For Skatharoudis the seminary experience has helped him more closely examine the words of Jesus and how they apply in his ministry. The multidenominational classroom prepared them both to serve across religious traditions.
Scott’s resolve as he pastors and teaches is to see “ministers who are called and who have a deep desire to bring the comfort and peace of Christ to people who will soon end their earthly journey.”
With only 44 percent of Americans regularly attending some form of religious service, and only 61 percent of that total identifying themselves as Christian, students and alumni of Northeastern Seminary respond by bringing God’s love to people’s everyday lives—as chaplains.
In this specialized ministry, a chaplain interacts with people in settings outside the traditional church. Lida Merrill (NES ’06), who serves the developmentally disabled and their families, believes her ministry is relevant and necessary amid political and economic uncertainty: “the ministry of chaplain can be a bridge for the unchurched society to test out the truths of the Gospel.”
Chaplaincies offer essential opportunities to reach people who may never enter a church, including the military, hospitals and human services, hospice care, and correctional facilities. In Merrill’s experience, “Many people have questions and deep spiritual hunger, but they will not return or go to a church because of past wounds. A chaplain is a safe person because he or she is usually not working at a church, but in a community or care-giving setting. Chaplains are in a unique position to listen to people’s concerns, discern where God is at work within their lives, and be an ambassador of the Kingdom of God.”
Michael Cerula (NES ‘09), chaplain for the U.S. Army, says the most gratifying part about serving with the military has been how soldiers openly ask for prayer and willingly share their stories with him. Like others, Cerula had been challenged and invigorated through the seminary’s focus on intentional personal and spiritual formation. “What used to be a boring discipline of morning devotions has turned into a joyful time of thanksgiving with our Creator God.”
A chaplain’s motivations go beyond church membership or conversion head counts. According to Bruce Swingle (NES ’01), lead chaplain at a VA Medical Center, “It is about relationships and about competencies.” He explains, “If someone wants to be a chaplain they must be firm in their own beliefs and values while respecting those of others. They must love learning from formal courses, from other disciplines, and especially from the people and families they serve. From my understanding of I Thessalonians 4:8, I see chaplaincy as allowing people to become so dear and important to us that we are willing to share with them not only the Gospel of God, but our own lives as well.”
Click here to find out more about fulfilling chaplaincy requirements with a Master of Divinity.