“What does a hospice chaplain do? Do you just read the Bible to people, and pray for them?”

Those are good questions. The answer to both is yes, but so much more.

My official title is Spiritual Care Coordinator. Simply put, I am a hospice faith leader. Although some prefer the titles “Chaplin” or “Pastor.” Others, however, discourage the use of “pastor” because they say that it carries too much of a religious tone. Which term is the most appropriate to use? Whichever title one prefers to use may depend on their background, their particular agency, and the environment in which they serve. It depending on the comfort level and background of the family or population one serves.

What is a Spiritual Care Coordinator?

Although titles and job descriptions are necessary for determining the scope and purpose of my function, there is something more essential to what I do. It is the key to everything I do as a clergy person working with hospice patients. The most fundamental issue is for me to keep in mind the question, “Why am I here?” My answer to that question will guide me through the remainder of my visits with the patient.

My role and service as a Spiritual Care Coordinator are to assist in coordinating, or arranging spiritual care for the patient. How does one know what to do? Whenever it is possible, I take my cues from the patient and/or family. I have some questions that I like to ask during my first visit with a patient. Their responses give me an idea of where they are spiritually and what I can do to be of assistance.

Why is this service necessary?

“What has been helpful to you in the past to sustain you, or keep you going when life got difficult?” Most of the time, the answer is God or their faith background. Either way, it gives me an idea of resources we can utilize in supporting the patient while they are under hospice care.

Others may answer that it is their family that is important and gives them hope and strength at difficult times in their life. If this is the case, I try to explore who the key supportive relationships are, if they are currently living, how near or far they may be, and if we may contact them. After inquiring about what sustains the patient during hard times, I follow with a second key question that serves as a compass for offering spiritual care: “How may I help with that?”

Their answer to the second question may be difficult, or it may be as easy as picking up the phone and calling their church. When someone is going through a difficult time, it is difficult for them to think of everything that needs to be done. I don’t just assume their primary spiritual caregiver is aware of their current situation. So, I ask. I inquire if their church is aware that they have come under hospice care. If they haven’t notified their pastor, I extend the courtesy of doing so on their behalf – with their permission, of course.

A third question I like to ask the patient, “What is your biggest concern at this time in your life?” The answers people give to this question vary from estranged relationships to who is going to take care of their family after they (patient) are gone.

LuAnn’s Story

One patient, I’ll call LuAnn, didn’t have what could be considered typical concerns.

When I asked LuAnn what her biggest concern was at that particular time in her life, she answered, “I want to know that someone is going to take care of my cats.” LuAnn was my age. She had never married and never had children. She had two cats that were her world, and they were her “kids.” After sharing LuAnn’s concern with family, they found a home for her cats before she passed.

I occasionally take my guitar on visits with me for patients that like music. To one patient, their favorite hymn may be the spiritual care they need. To another, their favorite Johnny Cash song seems to brighten their day. To the non-verbal or unresponsive patient, a simple, supportive presence – reminding them that they are not alone – may be the answer to their need on a particular day.

Most patients, families, or staff do not expect the Spiritual Care Coordinator to be something they are not, or to do something that compromises the Coordinator’s own practices. They simply hope to have someone that cares enough to show compassion toward the patient’s needs.

To some, spirituality may mean merely walking beside them, and being their friend. “Rejoice with those that rejoice, and weep with those that weep” (Romans 12:15). This is a need that all members of the hospice team can help meet.