My heart’s quest for a long time was: How can I provide compassionate pastoral care in a setting other than church leadership? I knew that the role of a Unity church minister just wasn’t “my thing.” What was it to be? Finally, after a lot of praying and searching (and patience), my yearning to be a Unity minister and my dream of compassionate pastoral care overlapped and pointed me toward hospice chaplaincy. Okay, Spirit, how do I do this?
“Doing this” was not without a few challenges along the way to test my resolve to do it. Finishing Unity’s Ministerial Education Program, leaving my family, earning and learning at the same time, finding a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) internship, and trusting that a place would open for me—it was a three-year period of practice in “keeping my eyes on the prize.” And what a wonderful prize it is!
When those challenges appeared, I renewed my commitment to my vision, affirming over and over, “I’m living the Truth as I know it now”—and continued to lean into the life-learning opportunities presented in each moment. “Here I am, Lord—what’s next?” carried me along, even when the search looked fruitless and I felt discouraged. These spiritual practices kept me willing and engaged no matter what was—or wasn’t—happening.
After a 2-year period of ministerial studies and ordination as a Unity minister, and a 1-year supervised clinical internship, I joined a hospice program. For the last 10-plus years I’ve been no less than enormously blessed to be a companion on the journeys of so many people toward peaceful completion of their human experiences. They shared their wisdom and opened their hearts to me, and taught me what being a companion for their journeys really means.
Being a Compassionate Presence
Hospice chaplains provide care by visiting ill persons, and their caregivers, in their homes—whether that’s their own home, a family member’s home, a nursing home, a group home or a hospital. The chaplain’s purpose is to be a compassionate presence in their world. Open-hearted listening without judgment, validating their experience, reflecting back to them what is heard, exploring the meaning of choices made and what’s real for them now—and being a caring companion as they complete their human lives, are the essence of this work. The use of “tools”—shared activities such as reading, crafts, spiritual discussion, prayer and ritual, pet visits, etc.—provide a means to enrich the experience for the ill person and their caregivers.
Visit frequency varies with the needs of the ill person and their caregivers, from daily visits to one visit per month. Most hospice chaplains have a schedule of work hours, and I was expected to make a certain number of visits in a week’s or a month’s time. Many are on-call for night and/or weekend visits a certain number of days per month in addition to their normal schedule. I also officiate at funerals and memorial services, and attend social events honoring the ill person. My calling schedule always shifts to accommodate these events, seven days a week.
Some of the many blessings of my chaplaincy are:
- Knowing this work makes a difference even in the littlest ways.
- Being a person’s compassionate companion on the journey to the end of life.
- Being able to offer extra comfort, hope and peace in more stressful moments.
- Being able to remind each person of his/her value as a unique human being with a meaningful life—however that life may look to others.
In the context of chaplaincy there is a standard of open-hearted acceptance of each situation without judging it. Keeping this mindset naturally entails patiently engaging with conditions that may arise—for example: what treatments and medications are appropriate and why; struggling to adjust to “strangers” visiting at a difficult time in life; working with behaviors such as anger, depression, denial, hostility, sadness, and despair that arise among the family caregivers toward the ill person and each other; and the ill person’s unwillingness to accept caregiving processes.
I’ve learned that coping with serious illness is hard. On top of that, the physical and spiritual pain that arise at end-of-life magnify what’s happening and it’s even harder to cope. As a chaplain, I’m often the compassionate pastoral “guide” that lends calm presence as they deal with whatever’s going on. When we’re more focused on working together toward a “helpful” outcome, we’re less distracted by the “hardness” in that moment.
Hospice chaplains are human too—and must be skillfully self-aware, observing their own feelings and reactions to avoid becoming too “enmeshed” emotionally with their charges. It’s challenging—but I must be able to recognize when it’s wiser to step away from a situation and restore my personal balance, because my feelings are overly involved. Yet, I know it’s essential to ensuring the highest and best outcomes for everyone involved.
The Place of Theology
And where would I be without Unity’s five foundational principles? They’re my theological “rock”! Knowing that all of us are God’s sacred, individualized expressions of Itself, and vital aspects of the One Life, living the Truth as each one knows it—this is the fueling energy that I carry with me in chaplaincy—and indeed at all times.
The Five Basic Principles help me intentionally see each person I encounter in their highest manifestation and honor their individual self-expressions—however that may look—and be at peace with that. My chaplaincy is richly enhanced by Unity’s theology that emphasizes inclusivity, tolerance and peace.
Because my visits are an “invited” relationship, the ill person is always the “inviter” who determines what’s happening during spiritual care visits. For the chaplain, the “invitation” is a meaningful opportunity to learn about another’s practices and can lead to a richer spiritual care relationship.
During my first visit, we discuss theological and spiritual preferences and how they’d like to include those values and practices in their spiritual caregiving. Their responses range from “no interest” to “can’t imagine life without” these values being addressed. Frequently prayer, scripture and spiritual discussion are requested; ritual may take place from time to time.
These preferences become part of their plan of care, and I offer them for the ill person accordingly. Sometimes the ill person will simply request only a caring, confidential companion with whom to share their feelings and concerns, and may not want to consider their spiritual or theological position. Some prefer to rely on their own pastor, priest or minister, and I make that connection upon request.
It’s important to use the ill person’s preferred sacred texts and adjust my language in prayer and conversation toward what’s comfortable for them. And it’s okay to ask the person and caregivers to educate the chaplain, which they are almost always willing and happy to do!
When the sacred moment of transition comes, even chaplains must say goodbye. I, like everyone else involved, feel my sadness and loss and grieve alongside family caregivers and friends who were part of that person’s life. I also remember that providing spiritual care is a divine appointment, and find comfort and peace in having had the opportunity to provide compassionate pastoral care.
For me as a hospice chaplain, the essence of being a compassionate pastoral companion means being present for the end of a person’s life journey, and witnessing that incomparable moment of transformation and completion—the moment of departing this human life.
And let there be no misunderstanding about it: hospice chaplaincy is deeply spiritual and deeply joyful work! It’s not just about endings and goodbyes—that’s one essential part of the process. There’s another part: joy. I’ve shared so much laughter and celebration, witnessed deep reconciliation and forgiveness, and—perhaps most meaningful—seen peaceful spiritual release into the knowing that “I am now and always have been a perfect expression of my Creator, and never without Its loving Presence in my life.”
One of the greatest things about my ministry is its portability, so I watch for and welcome opportunities to offer it to anyone, wherever and whenever we meet in this life. My passion for compassionate pastoral ministry continues to this day!
Any day, in any setting, I’m inspired to frequently pray:
Here I am, Lord. What’s next? Show me!
I embrace my ministry with passion, and look for your Presence in it.
May it always be so!
[author: Diana Taylor]