By Lindsay Peyton
A chaplain is well aware that God is not limited to the inside church walls. Wherever these providers of spiritual care are assigned, He is at work right alongside them – in hospitals, fire departments, prisons, universities, the military and law enforcement agencies.
Rev. Greg Edwards feels that divine presence in his work everyday as a hospice chaplain. “When you move into a chaplain position, you’ve just expanded your faith in a whole new realm,” he said. “And it gives you a real sense of getting out there and doing ministry in the field. It’s putting ministry in the real world.”
A member of the Texas Annual Conference, Edwards served as a pastor for a number of years before making a career change into chaplaincy. He first took a part-time position as a hospice chaplain in 2013 and accepted a full-time role in Beaumont three years later. Last year, he moved to San Antonio to continue his work in the field.
Becoming a chaplain first appealed to Edwards, when he was searching for ways to become more involved in the community. Besides, he was already visiting members of his congregation in the hospital as a pastor. He thought, why not expand that ministry?
Hosptials are a foriegn land
Edwards was called to help patients navigate hospice. “When you go into a hospital, it’s a foreign land and people are speaking a foreign language,” he said.
He is there to assist both patients and their families. “You’re dealing with their grief and loss, along with the patient’s struggle with the disease,” he said. “A good chaplain is ministering to the family and keeping the communication going. Chaplaincy is not just the patient. It’s the whole dynamic of whoever is involved with the patient.”
And that includes physicians and nurses as well. Edwards is able to serve them – and they also inspire him. “I am here as part of a team and helping them as well,” Edwards said. “Our camaraderie keeps me going.”
The experience has proven humbling, Edwards said. One of his first questions is if a patient has a faith home or church family. “Are they checking in on you or visiting with you?” he asks.
“So often I hear, ‘No,’” he said. “As a chaplain, something I can do is help you reconnect.”
Edwards works with patients of all faiths, some who are religious and others who are agnostic or atheist. “You don’t assume. You walk in with a blank slate,” he said.
There are times when patients decline a chaplain, Edwards said. He always respects their wishes – but also explains that he is not there to proselytize, only to visit and offer support.
“Sometimes it’s your presence that is more powerful than anything you do or say,” Edwards explained. “Sometimes, it’s just sitting quietly with a person on bed rest.”
He became a board certified chaplain last year and recommends that others interested in the field pursue Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), education to teach spiritual care to clergy and others. “It gives you the tools you need to really do this job,” he said.
In the Texas Annual Conference, Susan Buchanan serves as ACPE associate certified educator, appointed by Bishop Scott J. Jones. Currently, she is working at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Missouri.
Before her current post, Buchanan was a CPE certified educator at Houston Methodist and a Senior Chaplain and Educator at MD Anderson. She also served as a pastor in the Conference for about 30 years.
Becoming a CPE educator combined her interests in education with chaplaincy. “In this ministry, you really get to have deep meaningful conversations,” she said. “They’re facing a crisis and trying to find God in its midst. I get to be a part of that.”
As an instructor, Buchanan seeks to empower others to pursue chaplaincy. “I’m equipping people to share God’s love,” she said.
Students in the CPE program have both classes to attend and clinical hours to attain. Candidates must have a master’s degree or master’s level training.
Central to the CPE is the verbatim, or a case presentation. Buchanan said students recollect and evaluate a conversation with a patient word for word.
“They reflect on it, where they missed opportunities and where they responded well,” she said. “It takes a lot of vulnerability to then present that to a group. It’s eye-opening to have feedback. And it helps them become the type of person they want to be.”
Students are constantly learning and searching for ways to become more empathetic. Buchanan tells students, “Consider the feedback you are getting as a gift. It can be hard, but it’s an opportunity to get where you want to be.”
She explained that being a chaplain requires a wide range of skills from helping patients discuss their fears to assisting them as they make sense of their values and beliefs.
Chaplaincy is a growing field, Buchanan said. She works with students who are becoming chaplains in a number of different fields.
When it comes to hospice, Buchanan draws from her faith. “It doesn’t matter which faith tradition people come from,” she explained. “It’s what is in our faith tradition that helps you. That death is not the final word helps me to be present. That’s what gives me compassion and strength.”
Edwards agreed. “While you deal with other faith traditions, the key is to be true to yourself,” he said. “You hold onto what you believe. And your faith strengthens you.”
And that’s what helps him pass on that courage to others, that force they need to persevere. He reflects often on Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
“God is with us. God is giving you strength,” Edwards said.