UCC chaplains offer 'the power of presence'
The Rev. Martha Jacobs, a chaplain in New York City, wears many hats. An active member of Riverside Church (UCC/American Baptist) in New York, she is also president of UCC Professional Chaplains and Counselors (formerly known as UCC Chaplains in Healthcare), a national organization that helps address issues of UCC chaplains and provides a network of resources for its members.
Artville | Lisa Zador graphic
Since the upstart of the e-newsletter in early 2004, subscriptions have more than doubled. The website allows chaplains and other spiritual care providers all over the world to feel part of a close-knit community where they can exchange ideas or discuss spiritual care topics.
Recently, a retired United Methodist minister and Clinical Pastoral Education advisor began emailing Jacobs his thoughts as he grapples with Alzheimer's disease. She has been encouraging him to sit down and type during his more-difficult moments.
"He sends me e-mails that are pages and pages and pages of nothing, then in the midst is a little kernel of amazing insight," she says. She's planning to edit the emails into an article that can help others going through a similar situation.
Last fall, Jacobs and the UCC Professional Chaplains and Counselors met with the Rev. John H. Thomas and other leaders from the national setting in Cleveland.
The meeting dealt, in part, with the issue of keeping chaplains in the circle of communication with the wider church. "[Thomas] is very supportive of chaplains," Jacobs says. "He wants them to feel a part of those who serve through the UCC."
Jacobs feels that for a long time, there has been a disconnect between chaplains and their wider faith communities. "It's understandable," she says. "The local church is where the connection is. But there are more and more people specializing outside the church, and they're valid ministries."
Being a chaplain in healthcare, says Jacobs, is like being a conduit between the local clergy, the hospital staff and the patient. A chaplain is specialized in navigating the healthcare system, and is trained in handling the issues of death and dying.
"We can help facilitate those end-of-life conversations that are often hard for families to have," says Jacobs, "like, 'I'm sorry,' or 'thank you.'"
Sometimes, the job of a chaplain is to say nothing at all. "I think we bring a power of presence," says Jacobs, who is pursuing a doctorate degree centering on the attitudes of clergy surrounding death and dying issues.
"What used to amaze me is that I would be in a room with a family where a person is dying. I might not say a word the whole time. Afterwards, the family will say to me, 'thank you so much, you made such a difference.'"
The presence of a chaplain in the time of crisis sometimes serves as a reminder that God is there.
"When people are in crisis, that's when they lose sight of God," Jacobs says. "But God is right there, crying right along with them."
UCC chaplain recognized for healthcare excellency
Allentown, PA., pastor receives Varwig award
Each year, a UCC chaplain in healthcare is awarded the Julius W. Varwig Award from the UCC Professional Chaplains and Counselors. The award is given to someone who ministers in the spirit of Varwig, a 1898 graduate of UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary who became the first full-time Protestant chaplain in the United States.
The Rev. Allan Kramer-Moyer of Allentown, Pa., is the award's 2005 recipient. Kramer-Moyer is vice president of pastoral care services at Phoebe Ministries, a UCC-related organization specializing in health care, housing and support services for older persons throughout eastern and central Pennsylvania. Kramer-Moyer oversees four chaplains who work in four different Phoebe nursing home sites.
Kramer-Moyer's work in Phoebe's Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program got the attention of the UCC Professional Chaplains and Counselors because it is one of the most-developed pastoral care programs in a UCC faith-based organization.
CPE, explains Kramer-Moyer, is an accredited form of theological education, primarily for seminary students and pastors who want to become chaplains. Each year, about 10 students take part in Phoebe's CPE program.
"We train seminary students and pastors in pastoral care and counseling, listening skills, skills in spiritual assessment," explains Kramer-Moyer. He is proud of the life review exercise done by each CPE participant: A student interviews a Phoebe resident three or four times, then writes up a life story which is given to the resident. "It's an affirmation of the resident's life," says Kramer-Moyer, "and it develops an intimate relationship between the student and the resident, as well."
"In healthcare chaplaincy," says Kramer-Moyer, "your congregation is with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You get to participate with them in the different daily events in their life, as well as the transitional times - if they have a health emergency or crisis, or as they're in the process of dying."
Healthcare chaplaincy is also unique in that chaplains have to work at understanding the clinical environment, learning the language of medicine and social work and physical therapy, he says.
Kramer-Moyer came to Phoebe 10 years after working as a chaplain in secular hospitals. "I saw that the relationship between local UCC churches and Phoebe was so strong, and I wanted to build on it," he says. Phoebe Ministry receives resident referrals from local congregations, as well as financial support. In return, Phoebe goes out to UCC parishes and participates in the Called to Care training program, designed for local parish visitors. Kramer-Moyer also notes that of the over 300 volunteers at Phoebe most are members of local UCC churches.
As a chaplain, Kramer-Moyer doesn't view the Phoebe chaplain staff as replacing the local ministers.
"We call ourselves partners with the local congregations," he says. "We open doors for local pastors to come and minister to their parishioners who are residents here. The staff are very willing and open to invite pastors to be involved in the spiritual care of our residents."
Chaplain: 'I consider my work to be evangelical'
The Rev. Lynne Mikulak, a UCC minister, works at the New York- Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. As fulltime chaplain in the HIV/AIDS unit, Mikulak has developed a unique ministry: a religion and sexuality support group.
"It serves the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] population," says Mikulak. "The focus, in a single sentence, is for people who have been wounded by religion."
Mikulak takes the support group very seriously, especially since a lot of its members come to her at a time when suicidal feelings make their spiritual wellness an immediate concern.
"From what I see," Mikulak says, "these religious wounds have manifested themselves as acting out of every kind: sexually acting out, addictions, substance abuse, eating disorders, general self-destructive behavior. They've been given the inherent message that they are bad, they are evil, they will go to hell. They are not loved, they are not accepted by God or community. Many of them have been carrying around that damage for years."
Mikulak has compiled a list of houses of worship in her area that proclaim themselves to be welcoming places for the LGBT community. "Of course," she smiles, "all our UCC churches are on there!"
"Often, they're looking for a place that isn't just a 'gay church,'" she says. "They want a mainstream Christian church where they will feel completely welcome, where they won't stand out, where the message is very clear that they're welcome."
Still, some group members are interested in resolving their issues with spirituality - and that doesn't include going to a worship service. Mikulak sometimes ventures out with the group to look at religious art in museums or to botanical gardens to experience God's beauty and grace in different settings.
Mikulak feels a strong calling to her support group. "I was raised Catholic and found a welcome place at the table in the UCC," she says. "My own journey reflects a lot of what I've seen my patients go through.
"I consider my work to be evangelical - I'm not proselytizing, but I do feel on a very broad, inclusive kind of way, I'm trying to bring people back to God's grace or to find it in their lives," says Mikulak. "In whatever form that takes."