Note: This article updates a version that appeared in the Journal’s December 2022 issue with material that appeared in its January 2023 issue.
Council of General Synod (CoGS) has recognized Anglican health-care chaplains, also known as spiritual care professionals, as an official network of the national church’s department of Faith, Worship, and Ministry (FWM).
The council passed a resolution Nov. 12 that welcomed FWM initiatives in creating networks to support local ministries. It recognized in particular the Anglican Health Care Spiritual Care Professionals Network as an official FWM ministry network.
The Rev. Eileen Scully, director of FWM, said the motion of support from CoGS would offer recognition to Anglican spiritual care professionals, who recently held their second national gathering in the same space at the Queen of Apostles Renewal Centre in Mississauga, Ont. from Oct. 11 to 14.
Making the health-care chaplains’ network official, Scully said, would also give it a formal mandate in a way she compared to the establishment of the Youth Secretariat to help organize youth ministry. Scully—who also organized the spiritual care professionals’ conference—thanked CoGS after the motion carried for their “support in growing this important network.”
Burnout among spiritual care professionals
Many of the church’s health care chaplains who attended the October conference told the Anglican Journal they’re exhausted by the pandemic and have felt unsupported. But some had said they hoped this could change with recognition of their network as an official ministry of the church.
“Who do the healers go to when they need healing?” Chris Salstrom asked during a break at the gathering of spiritual care professionals. Salstrom works mainly with dementia patients, but her experience also includes palliative care and supporting those dealing with respiratory and mental health issues.
Salstrom also attended the first Anglican health-care chaplains’ national gathering in 2019, but found this fall’s follow-up smaller—and dominated by one theme in particular.
“It’s been a sharing of, I think, how burned out people have become by the COVID experience,” she said.
In a report she presented to the conference, Salstrom described a chronic understaffing situation across Canada, even before the pandemic, that has led many spiritual health practitioners to retire, change jobs or leave the profession entirely.
Due to understaffing, Salstrom said, “There is often no time for spiritual health practitioners to take care of one another as they are scrambling to try to meet the overwhelming demands put upon them.” Supervisors and institutional managers at health-care facilities, she added, often do not understand the demands of chaplains’ work and therefore offer little or no support.
Scully said that as of 2022, the health-care chaplains’ group had a membership of 70. It was hoped that between 40 and 50 people would attend the national gathering, she told the Journal prior to the gathering, but in the end 18 came.
Many spiritual care professionals, Scully said, “desperately wanted to come, and simply cannot because they’re either burned out or in the process of burning out” and could not take time off work.
“Even though they’re working in the health-care system as chaplains, some are being called on to do other things as well,” she added. “This is a testament to the health-care system crisis that we’ve got right now.”
The Mental Health Commission of Canada found in a report this year that 40% of health-care workers feel burned out, 50% plan to leave the profession and only 60% are satisfied with the quality of care they offer. Respondents, surveyed between December 2021 and February 2022, included nurses (31%), social workers (12%) and personal support workers (11%). Most worked in hospitals, long-term care, and home and community care. “Nearly every barrier related to the pandemic arose from staff shortages, which participants noted was a pre-existing issue worsened by COVID-19,” the report said.
Chaplains sought greater recognition from church
Many chaplains said during the conference that they felt a lack of support from the Anglican Church of Canada.
Immediately after the gathering, health-care chaplains put forward a motion at the diocesan synod of Rupert’s Land calling for the local Anglican chaplains’ network to be recognized as an official ministry of the diocese. The synod passed the motion, which the national chaplains’ network welcomed in a communique following their October meeting.
According to the communiqué, the conference had inspired chaplains to “make local supports happen.” Official recognition and greater understanding of the role of chaplains, both at the national and local church level, could offer vital support during tough times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Salstrom said.
At the conference, chaplains worshipped together and shared what they had learned during the pandemic about grief and pastoral presence.
Sarah George works night shifts as a spiritual care professional at St. Michael’s and Sunnybrook hospitals in Toronto. Both are part-time jobs with closer to “full-time hours”, she said. In a typical week, George will work three 12-hour shifts at St. Michael’s—a downtown hospital whose clientele includes many homeless residents—plus a six-hour shift and eight-hour shift at Sunnybrook.
At the time she attended the chaplains’ gathering, George was on five weeks of unpaid medical leave after getting surgery for a hernia. She previously attended the 2019 gathering, where she realized “everyone is struggling, and not all our managements actually understand what we are going through.”
George suggested the Anglican Church of Canada could provide a stipend or honorarium to support chaplains—or help fund more conferences like the two national chaplains’ gatherings, which will not happen again in the absence of additional funding.
Salstrom put forward the idea of “networks of people within the church to provide support to the chaplains … because right now there’s no one there to support the healers.” Her personal vision of what such a network might look like would be to have groups of people within each diocese available to chaplains to provide support in times of stress. They might also facilitate local gatherings for spiritual care professionals to support one another.
Giving spiritual care ‘an incredible privilege’
Spiritual care professionals have different methods to avoid burnout. Sheila Atkinson, a grief support coordinator for families and staff in the pediatric palliative care program at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, has taken to writing poetry to process what she describes as the “intensity of … grief all the time.” One poem is entitled “This Could Be Me.” Another was inspired by seeing images of children affected by the war in Ukraine.
“I allowed myself into that emotional response and then I wrote about it to come back out of it … I need to let something greater than me take care of this and not have to come back to where I deal with tragedy and loss all the time,” Atkinson said.
Rejoice Anthony, who started work in July at St. Jude’s Anglican Home in Vancouver and also serves as on-call staff for Vancouver General Hospital’s pastoral care team, works with elders suffering from dementia and their families. As a chaplain, she is contracted by the diocese to the care home.
Anthony, like many chaplains, finds morning prayer essential. Earlier this year, to process being the last person a dying patient ever saw shortly after their introduction, she also began what she calls “pilgrim walking.”
On her way home, Anthony walks a minimum of two miles, during which she prays for a person’s soul and asks God to “guide them … and for me to acknowledge that I’ve done the best that I possibly could for that person, and now I am letting it go. Then as I walk closer and closer to home, I find that I’ve left it behind, and I thank the person for allowing me the privilege to be there for them.”
Carolyn Herold, who works part-time as a parish priest at St. Laurence Anglican Church in Calgary and part-time as a chaplain for Alberta Health Services, said chaplains continue to find great fulfillment in their work despite the difficult times facing health care in Canada.
“In the midst of all this grief and lament, we have this understanding that this is a joy and a blessing,” Herold said. “People don’t get that outside. They say to you all the time, ‘Oh, that work’s got to be so hard.’ And it is hard. But there’s so much joy in it as well … We get the privilege of seeing people as they truly are at their most vulnerable point in their life and seeing God moving in them in whatever way that is. That is such an incredible privilege.”