Sailors on the USS WASP watch as the USS COMFORT passes by, returning to Norfolk from New York City. Photo courtesy of Derek Vande Slunt.
Serving Christ in the Midst of a Pandemic
Over the last few months, our alumni and students have been working hard to meet the needs of their congregations and communities in crisis. Among them are those working on the front lines of the pandemic as chaplains.
M.Div. student Brianne Christiansen is completing a round of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at a hospital in Fayetteville, AR. Although she feels called to be a pastor, she decided to do CPE for an internship, never imagining it would coincide with a global pandemic.
“I have a deep sense that this is where I’m supposed to be,” she says. “There are so many Gospel stories where Jesus walks toward people who are sick. That’s always the work of the chaplain, but it feels especially poignant when no one else can be there right now, not even family.”
One night Brianne was asked to facilitate a FaceTime call between a COVID-19 patient and his daughter. Strapping on her gown, N95 mask, gloves, and face shield, she carried an iPad into the room so the daughter could pray for and talk to her father. Although he was on a ventilator and couldn’t respond, the daughter asked Brianne to hold her father’s hand and write a message on his whiteboard to see when he woke up. The young woman’s mother had died from COVID-19 just days before.
“You hope the Holy Spirit is moving as you try to communicate through so many layers,” Brianne says. “You are the conduit of their love for the patient.”
A challenge of the pandemic is that the number of visitors is severely limited, leaving patients without usual support systems by their bedside, explains Ruth Estell, a 2018 graduate working in Saginaw, MI. Chaplains are increasing phone calls to family members and churches to keep people informed and also acting as stand-ins when patients need a comforting presence by their side.
Paige Puguh (WTS ‘16) working in Neenah, WI, frequently needs to give assurance to patients that their communities are not going to disappear.
“The lack of physical church and not being able to see or touch loved ones is creating so much loneliness that people are starting to doubt there will be an end and that those communities will still be there when this is over,” she says.
Prior to the pandemic, “I would offer to place a hand on someone’s shoulder or hold their hand during prayer,” says Alyssa Muehmel, a 2020 M.Div. graduate whose internship at Holland Hospital ended in May. Now, chaplains are lucky if they’re allowed in the same room, with many having to do phone calls and online Zoom or FaceTime visits instead.
Eric Robbert (WTS ‘19) works in the trauma units and ER at a large Illinois hospital, spending much of his time on the phone with people whose family member is dying or has already passed away. “This is teaching me anew the power of a thoughtful word,” he says.
With 20+ years in hospital ministry, Jan Johnson (WTS ‘17) found herself feeling helpless and lost as the “pandemic wilderness” left her unable to offer a physical presence of comfort to dying COVID-19 patients and their families at Mercy Health in Muskegon, MI. She found guidance in the words of Psalm 139 and, with the Lord’s strength, she has been able to offer blessings to those in need. (you can read her reflection at michiganumc.org/a-psalm-and-a-blessing/ )
Josh Westhouse (WTS ‘19) in Grand Rapids, MI and Holly Teitsma (WTS ‘17) in Houston, TX are caring for people’s mental health through the pandemic.
Josh works with people who have needs around bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. He is also on a Special Care Unit for those who are positive for COVID-19 and need inpatient behavioral health services.
“The care of presence and being with someone as they are in pain is requiring more creativity,” says Josh. This includes things like teletherapy and providing smaller in-person group therapy sessions.
“People feel fatigue of all sorts and need to have an empathetic presence. As a chaplain, my knowledge, insight, understanding, body language, and spirituality are all ways I believe God uses me to build an emotional connection with another. It reminds me of a phrase I heard in seminary that sticks with me: the image of God seeing the image of God in another.”
Without the usual social cues from body language, Josh is asking more questions to understand how the person is feeling. This has brought a depth to conversations he wasn’t expecting.
For Holly, the act of transitioning online was tough at first because her practice was resistant. Luckily, she had been personally preparing as she became aware of the worsening pandemic the end of February. This preparation helped her bless others in her practice through training them on the new software.
“It was exhausting,” she admits, “But, two months into the process, I am finally starting to feel the integration of all the new.”
“I have been tremendously grateful, though, that prayer can be a vital component of telehealth sessions with my faith-oriented clients. It sustains us and reminds us that some things haven’t changed…that God is our constant.”
Holly works with a number of clergy clients, many of whom need encouragement as they deal with sick congregants, navigate online worship, and balance opinions among their leadership teams. Interestingly, she has noticed that some clergy who usually suffer from anxiety are actually thriving at home because they have less physical demands on them and can engage at a more manageable pace. This discovery has motivated one of Holly’s clients to figure out how to live out her call in ways that better honor who she is.
New graduate Jennifer VanCleve (WTS ’20) works as a PRN (on-call) chaplain at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where they are doing a lot of COVID-19 research. She also works in two behavioral/psych hospitals in Omaha, NE, which has provided real challenges. “The psych hospitals are full. People are not dealing well with the quarantining. If you do deal with depression or suicidal ideation, it is compounded tenfold. And they can’t have visitors,” she says.
“The staff are being affected by this crisis, too,” Jennifer adds. “Prior to COVID we didn’t really minister to staff, but now we do. It’s made chaplaincy a more well-rounded position, actually.”
While this season has had many challenges, there have been blessings as well. Many chaplains have noticed increased teamwork and camaraderie with their hospital staff, and local communities have rallied around healthcare workers by donating meals, masks, and even organizing prayers from the hospital parking lot. The role of spiritual care in a crisis is being appreciated like never before.
Derek Vande Slunt (WTS ‘00) is a chaplain on the USS Wasp naval aircraft carrier. Their worship services have doubled in size with at least one adult baptism since the pandemic
started. “Many who have neglected their faith foundations are turning back to those foundations during this time.”
For Mike Weaver (WTS ‘09), a hospice chaplain on the Michigan lakeshore who has been working from home and taking care of his kids, this experience has taught him love of neighbor in a new way. “Most of the time I have felt like I am not doing my job because I can’t. It’s been a big struggle. I have really had to focus on doing what I can and being satisfied that it is enough,” he shares. “The Spirit has been helping me grow in humble submission to love of neighbor and to hold loosely to my own wants and desires.”
Recent graduate Alyssa Muehmel has had her call to chaplaincy solidified through her experience at Holland Hospital and has accepted a residency in Ann Arbor, MI. “I have seen that with God’s help I’m able to show up in a crisis. I didn’t think of myself as a person with that skill set before.”
Most chaplains will be grappling with the effects of the pandemic for a long time. As they are asked to steward others’ pain, chaplains are also experiencing heartaches and anxieties as well. Some are concerned about bringing the virus home to their own families as they continue to meet in-person with patients. Others are struggling with lack of sleep and their own grief over all the uncertainties.
Eric Robbert shared this story: “A patient decided, after four weeks of struggling with COVID-19, to die. The kindness, sincerity, and clarity of this decision struck our staff. I watched the patient struggle to breathe for hours and prayed for comfort and peace, and then I called the family when the patient died. Our staff was uniquely impacted by this person, whom we only knew in this brief way. I’m still journeying with this story and trying to understand what it means to me and how it impacts my view of life and dying well.”
Jennifer Van Cleve says that at times working as a chaplain does get sad. “It’s not without its trauma, but for every sad story, you see the hand of God. I’ve seen God move mountains. Because of HIPAA laws, I can’t tell all these stories, but God is alive and active and incredibly powerful.
“This has been hard,” admits Ruth Estell. “It is tempting to try to convince myself and others that everything is just fine, but it’s not just fine. There has been so much loss and sorrow in connection to this pandemic. The laments in the Psalms have been especially meaningful to me. Coming face to face with my own weakness and need during this time has caused me to seek God and cling to God all the more.”
Paige Puguh says if you sense the call, don’t let this time deter you from becoming a chaplain. “As scary as it is, it’s been a great learning experience,” she says. “For one reason or another, chaplaincy finds its heart in times like this.”