‘The church needs us and we need the church’: Feelings of isolation, disconnection common for Anglican health care chaplains

Thirty-six Anglican spiritual care providers working in the health care field met in Toronto May 30-June 2 for the first-ever national gathering of its kind. Photo: Joelle Kidd
Published June 12, 2019

This is the first story of a two-part series.

“A couple years back—it was Friday, late evening—I was coming back after a disastrous week. There was a bus casualty…people were scattered all over the highway. It was a horrific day. It was about 10 o’clock in the evening…that was the day when—I don’t know whether it was a new clergy’s ordination or if it was [a] good-bye party. I walked into the restaurant and it was [the bishops] and all the clergy sitting there. I looked like a zombie, a homeless person, after this 12-hour day.

“They looked at me and said, ‘We missed you.’ With that kind of, you know, ‘You were not here again.’ I just broke into tears.”

As the attendee of the gathering of Anglican health care chaplains tells his story, the room is quiet. Some nod, wearing expressions of familiarity.

Eventually, the chaplain says, he wrote a letter to his bishop expressing the frustration he felt. “I said, ‘Day after day, week after week, we wander in the wilderness. We bury the children you don’t know about. We pick up the dead bodies from the highways. We console the families and the physicians and the staff in the hospitals. While you are all celebrating…we want to be there with you. But sometimes you are not with us.’”

This was one of many stories shared during an afternoon of reflection at the first-ever national gathering of Anglicans in health care spiritual care provision, held in Toronto from May 30-June 2.

Capping off a weekend of gathering for prayer and worship, plenary workshops and panel discussion, and exploratory activities on topics such as connection and self-care, 36 health care chaplains from across the country gathered Sunday, June 2, for a time of reflection on the meeting and discussion of where to go from here.

The session began with reflections by General Synod Director of Faith, Worship and Ministry the Rev. Eileen Scully, General Synod Prolocutor Cynthia Haines-Turner, and Bishop of the diocese of Rupert’s Land Geoff Woodcroft, who had attended the gathering as “active listeners.” After these words was a time of response during which each attendee spoke.

What emerged was a sense of gratitude for newfound belonging and questions of how the Anglican church might better support health care chaplains.

Feelings of isolation common

“The reality is that with the kinds of ministries that [chaplains] exercise, they are by definition in some ways kind of isolated,” said Scully, in an interview with the Journal in advance of the gathering. “They shouldn’t be. But you know, they don’t fit within the traditional diocesan structures. When there are clergy conferences, they’re lucky if the diocesan leadership thinks to invite them or include them on the clergy email list, that sort of thing.”

This sentiment was echoed around the room as the assembled spiritual care providers spoke, many with great emotion, of feeling at times undervalued or unsupported by the church to which they belong.

One attendee confessed that he had told his colleagues earlier that week, “I have never been so apprehensive to go to anything in my life.”

“I go to a lot of Anglican gatherings…but I guess that ‘belonging’ piece—I’ve never felt like I really belonged before. It’s been a long time. I almost feel like I’m at a table of Truth and Reconciliation. Finally, I’ve been heard.”

Haines-Turner reported hearing from the spiritual care providers “a sense of isolation and separation” from the church.

“I heard about, and this is a much more practical thing, the precarious nature of your work, because of government funding, because of hospital structures and administrations, because of of changes in philosophy and thinking. How precarious and uncertain your work is [must] be a huge personal stress,” she said, adding that their work is “extremely valuable.”

“I would—because this is who I am—I would encourage you, wherever you are, to be a part of…your parish, to be a part of the synod. To say, ‘I’m here and I’m ready to make a contribution.’ And to be part of the wider ministries of the church. Because that’s really important, and I think there’s a role for the church in that, but I also think there’s a role for you.”

She also reflected on the nature of chaplaincy as a ministry “as Christ-like as any ministry ever, in fact perhaps much more Christ-like. It is costly, it is sacrificial, it is huge.” Unlike other church ministries, there is no expectation that the people being pastored to will “give more money in the plate on Sunday, or maybe take over Sunday school,” she added. “What you get back is not in the ways in which normally as an institution we see as giving back. So really, it’s giving, expecting nothing in return.”

It is easy for the church to fall into a “culture of scarcity,” said Woodcroft. “We’ve become afraid. We’ve shut out many possibilities, good and bad. We’re just closed. So we’re doing the ‘bums in pews, money on plates’ thing, as if that’s the only way we can see health. But you invest yourself daily so that another might have life—or death with dignity, or meaning, or love. You do it out of a culture of abundance. So if you want an answer of why we haven’t been really, really gracious in our acknowledgement, it’s partly because we can’t. We have to learn that behavior again, and change our culture.”

Woodcroft also promised “to do all in our power to support and nurture you in our life in Christ,” adding, “What prevents us from once a year having a service of dedication for institutional chaplains? What prevents us…, four times a year when we reaffirm the baptismal covenant, from shouting out those words, ‘ALL’?”

Woodcroft also gave a specific acknowledgement to the lay chaplains in the room. “I need to give you a ‘sorry’ from the church—you are going to need to hear it more and more—for not putting you on any list.”

In response, two attending lay chaplains thanked the bishop for his acknowledgement. “It brought tears to my eyes,” one said.

Another attendee spoke of a sense of relief, “to be heard, to be validated, and to be held in all of this, by all of you. And I also hear…that the church needs us. But we need the church. We are on the front lines, we see the depth of pain to the core of each person that we minister, and we see death, we see tragedy. And who’s there for us? It’s not all about being seen and heard and held. It’s about nurturing our woundedness and our secondary trauma, and all that we experience.”

The Rev. Di Jaggassar, a chaplain in the diocese of Ottawa, spoke about attending clergy conferences and feeling like “just a chaplain.”

“I’m an ordained priest, but so often I’ll be asked if I have a parish,” Jaggassar said in an interview with the Journal. “And I say, ‘Yes, my parish is the hospital.’ I do services and things in our community, but you know, in other words, if you aren’t a parish priest, then you’re not really.”

In a plenary workshop May 30, Wanda Malcolm, a professor of pastoral psychology at Wycliffe College, spoke about the importance of self-care. Her talk touched upon these same feelings of isolation and the difficulties of spiritual care in the health care field. “Spiritual caregiving is emotionally and spiritually demanding, in and of itself,” Malcolm told the group.

She said the job can be “undervalued” both by the institutions employing chaplains and by the churches to which they belong. Quoting from Robert C. Dykstra’s book Images of Pastoral Care, Malcolm said that “the theology underlying a spiritual caregiver’s pastoral identity is generally seen by those in more highly esteemed theological or professional disciplines to be untidy, undisciplined and unorthodox.”

“As a result, a professional in or outside of Church-land may not be knowledgeable about or comfortable with what you do. Take these last two together and you may find that others have difficulty grasping the significance or importance of what you do. All of this leaves you a bit isolated at times, maybe, or stumbling to explain to people why what you do is so important or vital in the institutions you work in,” she added.

During the gathering’s final reflection time, one chaplain, who is in his first year of work and will soon be ordained as a priest, spoke to the group. “My experience of disconnect from the life of the church and…ministry in hospital were a fairly new state for me. It’s a piece that I don’t know that I realized until gathering here and seeing and experiencing this connectedness with other chaplains in our traditions…. I’m early enough in my career that my life does not have to continue in a disconnected way, my life in ministry of the church. It’s rife with potential. That’s what I feel in this moment, a deep gratitude, and I’m hopeful.”

National gathering a first for health care chaplains

The gathering is the first of its kind for Anglican spiritual care providers in the health care field.

Since most chaplains are hired by the hospitals in which they work—rather than their dioceses—there is no national network of Anglican chaplains.

Scully discovered this fact while working on In Sure and Certain Hope, the national church-produced study guide on pastoral care in response to Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD). While there is a Canadian Association for Spiritual Caregivers (CASC), this is mainly a regulatory body and covers all faiths. She began trying to compile a list of Canadian Anglican spiritual caregivers.

“I just kind of started shaking the trees. I had this hunch that there were a lot of them around, but nobody knows everybody. So I wrote to bishops, I followed trails of one friend tells two friends…from all that, I’ve found, I have a list now of 56 Anglicans who are spiritual care providers in health care settings,” she said in an interview.

Of this list, 36 were able to attend the gathering.

“It’s the beginning of something. I think something quite beautiful actually,” said Scully.

“I’m just so happy that this happened,” Sarah George, a chaplain at St. Michael’s and Sunnybrook Hospitals in Toronto, told the Journal. “That Eileen had a vision, a dream, whatever. I could just keep hugging her, because it became a reality.”

George says that she hopes there will be more gatherings in the future. She also hopes to see the planning team become more diverse, in ethnic background as well as a mix of lay and ordained chaplains, from different health care contexts. “If we are not there, you don’t hear our voices…if a voice is not there for certain experiences, how can you speak of it? Or offer it?”

The first gathering was “an excellent start,” she added. “I love the liturgy that they put together. It’s really beautiful.”

“This has sparked something,” said Scully. “This is going to be something that has some momentum.”

The gathering was funded by a $30,000 grant from the Ministry Investment Fund Committee of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.

The participants in the gathering were all professional spiritual care providers from across Canada, working in health care settings including hospitals, long-term care facilities, palliative care and hospice, children’s hospitals, and other health care centres.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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