Hospital Chaplains Called to Minister in New Ways in This Time of COVID-19

By Rev. Jared Gadomski Littleton and Rev. Lisa Morrison*

In Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, Stark detailed how epidemics were a driving force for the rise of Christianity. Whereas the rich fled to the countryside estate, and the healthy abandoned their ill, Christians stayed and tended to the wounds, mopped the brows of the ill, and made sure they had adequate food and water. Though some Christians died as a result, they saved so many more by providing for their basic needs. People saw what the early Church did, and they converted in droves.

Fortunately, we live in a different time and place. Whereas early churches gave their own lives to provide medical care, we live in a period with numerous medical facilities highly skilled at providing life-saving care. Though there are indeed tragic stories of hospital caregivers losing their lives in the treatment of patients, at the Cleveland Clinic, and at most hospitals, there are sufficient personal protective equipment to protect those caring directly for COVID-19 patients.

So, the example does not directly apply – our Christian faith does not call us to give of our lives to provide basic care in response to this plague. In fact, to willingly expose oneself when others can do so with more safety violates our highest commandment to Love our Lord God with all our heart, mind and soul and love our neighbor as ourselves. To expose ourselves needlessly violates the command to love self.

In what way then, can we follow the spirit of our fathers and mothers in faith in responding to a plague in our midst? As chaplains, we have been called to change our work profoundly. Where we are able, we must now conduct all of our ministry over the phone or via video conferencing.  This means we must resist our urge to provide care in person and instead learn how to first tolerate and then thrive in the sometimes-awkward process of building relationship sight unseen.

One place our functioning as chaplains has significantly changed is in our Alcohol and Drug Recovery Program. Previously, a chaplain was embedded in the program and met with the patients in a group setting twice a week to help them to explore their spirituality. In the new environment without group meetings, teams of chaplains have been calling these patients on a twice-weekly basis to check in and explore their spirituality. Though awkward at times, we have found that the patients open up even more over the phone in these one-on-one encounters and really bare their souls.

In working with COVID patients in the hospital settings, chaplains can no longer provide in-person support. Instead, we call into the rooms and even use Facetime to have spiritual care visits with patients and family members. While it seemed awkward at first, we have found patients being willing to open up and share deeply about their illness, their faith and strengths as well as their concerns. Visitation is generally restricted; and this is particularly the case for COVID patients.  Therefore, the clinicians that do provide in-person or virtual visits help to provide important accompaniment and presence to patients who are lonely or afraid. We have the opportunity to embody that which is Holy and Sacred and promises to never leave us.

Some of our visits with COVID patients have included having difficult conversations about their hopes, concerns, and even their wishes if the disease progresses and threatens their lives. Care at a distance has included holding space and offering support as a patient who will be placed on a ventilator makes their final wishes known. We have been able to make notes of final words to loved ones if they are no longer able to speak. We have been able to honor their deep stories of their lives, offer a word of forgiveness and a final blessing. After death we have provided care to family members and have had the blessing of hearing the bigger stories of the patients that we serve. We have listened and celebrated these lives and sometimes we have wept as they have wept tears of grief. We have assisted families in contacting funeral homes and making plans for different types of funeral rituals during these different kinds of days.

Though care to staff has always been a core part of the mission of a chaplain, this has taken on a new prominence in these stressful days. We have established a 24-hour hotline for caregivers to call in need of spiritual support and, additionally, we express support to staff through 1:1 phone/video conversations, provide aromatherapy and tea to help staff relax, provide regular email and video messages of encouragement and coordinate community support like chalking the sidewalks or having pictures drawn by kids. All of our staff have appreciated the renewed focus on their well-being.

One blessing that has come out of this forced change in practice is how much closer all of the chaplains in the Cleveland Clinic system have become. Though we were all one team on paper, we really were chaplains scattered at disparate sites with minimal connection on a day-to-day basis. We now gather (remotely) each weekday at eight for updates of course, but even more profoundly this has been a place to share our own grief and stress. Though we can’t be together and can’t even see each other’s faces at times, we have laughed and cried together and are truly becoming one team.

Though the ministry context of the hospital is quite different from the local congregation, the same principles apply. Local congregations are not called on to provide direct care for the sick, but they can make a profound witness by staying at home, giving to food banks, checking in on loved ones, and figuring out how to maintain a sense of community in this time of physical distancing. Know that when you call your members who work in health care, support your recovery community, and provide empathetic support to the lonely, you ease our burdens and link yourself to our care team. In turn, we are blessed to provide world class spiritual care to your patients that are hospitalized if you simply let us know the need.

In these days of COVID, Christ is calling us to be his body in new and different ways. Though we may have different ministry settings, each of us is uniting to make God’s love tangible in these difficult times. In doing so, may we pray that the world responds to our witness just like it did years ago and our communities and loved ones are drawn ever closer to God at the end of this pandemic.

*Rev. Jared Gadomski Littleton and Rev. Lisa Morrison are chaplains in the Center for Spiritual Care at the Cleveland Clinic. Chaplain Jared is appointed to Lutheran Hospital and Chaplain Lisa to Fairview Hospital.