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Ministers shed light on vital role of hospital chaplains during trying times

As the world turns to 21st century solutions to work around the seizmic social upheaval of COVID-19, an ancient and unique vocation -- that of hospital chaplains -- remains ready and willing to shine a light for people at their most desperate, and often final moments.

Essentia Health St. Joseph's Medical Center Chaplain Peggy Holtz walks a hallway at the hospital Friday, Jan. 31. The new chaplain talks about her desire to reach people whatever their need or faith journey. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

While the fields of medicine and health care are often our first, our final, and our constant companions — from cradle to grave — there are few jobs quite comparable to the unique role that hospital chaplains play in people’s lives.

The vital work of hospital chaplains touches upon the mind, the body, and the soul, not only here in this life, but even into the hereafter as well. Hospital chaplains are on call to provide prayer, guidance and spiritual services, irrespective of the patient’s religion or creed. But, for many their care can be as simple — and even secular — as being a friend, a listener, or a hand to hold during the most vulnerable moments of life, said Peggy Holtz, a hospital chaplain with Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd.

“I always think about it as building a bridge,” Holtz said during a Jan. 31 sit down interview. “They don't know me. So, I'm trying to create a relationship in a short amount of time. And so I joke and I tell the nurses, ‘You might hear me talking about the farm.’ But that's the bridge I'm building. They can trust me.”

Barb Christenson comes at the issue from a manifold perspective — that of an associate pastor at the Merrifield Community Church of the Nazarene, a volunteer minister at Good Samaritan Society senior care facilities, as well as years as a registered nurse and something of an impromptu hospital chaplain during her career.


“To me, it is such a privilege,” Christenson said during an interview Feb. 5. “It's an honor to come into somebody's life when everything is against them and pray with them, share Jesus with them and see that peace. ... I like to get people to laugh. I love when people can loosen up and laugh and have peace.”

Much like jobs of every conceivable background, industry and utility, hospital chaplains have to work around numerous complications and restrictions amid social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 epidemic that’s affecting the globe. For a job that’s intimate and personal to its core, health care providers are turning to creative 21st century solutions to provide a service as old as time, said Kathy Sell, a communications representative for Essentia Health.

“We have visitor restrictions in place, so let's say somebody is at the end of life. The whole family can't gather around right now. It's not safe. So that whole experience is just looking completely different,” Sell said. “We're doing a lot with iPads and using virtual opportunities to connect with family, so the care they're providing looks a little bit different.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus and fears of climbing fatality rates highlight the need for hospital chaplains — whether they’re on hand, or present in a virtual sense. Social distancing of a different kind has been a growing issue for decades, said Holtz, who pointed to an increasingly individualistic and career-driven culture that often leaves people isolated as they enter their twilight years.

“They are in a vulnerable position. It might be the end of life. So they're thinking about their own mortality. And those questions come up. Where am I gonna go after I pass away?

“And these are questions you can't just ask a doctor, right?” Holtz said. “When you have somebody that's a chaplain, they can sort through those questions that are going through their minds.”


Everyday Essential Health St. Joseph's Medical Center Chaplain visits patients and family at the hospital caring for their needs what ever their spiritual journey. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Those questions aren’t only for believers. Noting that chaplains are expected to meet the needs of patients from all faiths and walks of life, Holtz spoke fondly of working with a patient who didn’t have any faith-based system of understanding the universe.

“I had a wonderful visit with a patient. I walked in and told him I was a chaplain. He laughed, and he said, ‘Well, I'm an atheist.’ I said, ‘That's OK. We're all human beings. And we're just here to help each other out on this journey,” she said. “Then we had a really good time. There's certainly a strong counseling component, even for those of us who don't believe.”

That can sometimes be the most difficult part of ministering to people in these situations, said Christenson, who noted it’s taken decades of experience and building trust in God to come to terms with some patients who put up a wall and refuse to be ministered to, or comforted, during their final moments.

“You have to accept and let people make their own choices,” Christenson said. “I would love to just grab everybody by the throat and say ‘Believe in Jesus,’ but I can't do that. Do I have self doubts? I gave them up a long time ago. I had to raise kids. Kids make disappointing choices and for a long time I blamed myself before I realized, ‘They’re big people. They make their own choices.’ So I try to not beat myself up too much.”

Much of Holtz’s work is an expression of her own experiences and insights into life, said Holtz, who noted that caring is not only about listening, but also sometimes sharing from a place of vulnerability. If that means becoming attached emotionally to a patient who’s fated to pass on, she said, then so be it. Much of a hospital chaplain’s job is to ease suffering and provide comfort, she said, even if that means the acceptance of pain that comes with it.

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .


Everyday Essential Health St. Joseph's Medical Center Chaplain visits patients and family at the hospital caring for their needs what ever their spiritual journey. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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