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Seminary Grads Find Ministry in Hospitals, Retirement Communities

by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Jill Gerig
Jill Gerig reads scripture in the chapel at University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Co. Gerig is one of a dozen recent EMS graduates who have become chaplains.

HARRISONBURG, Va. - Many people prefer to avoid hospitals and nursing homes, but some Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduates have chosen these places to do ministry.

About a dozen recent EMS graduates are pursuing chaplaincy roles as their field of ministry, in part due to the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at EMS. CPE gives students opportunity to explore ministry in a hospital or retirement community. Because of this, many choose to continue their ministry as chaplains after seminary.

"CPE at EMS helped me find a home in ministry," said 2005 seminary graduate Todd Warren, a hospice chaplain with Mount Carmel Health Systems in Columbus, Ohio. "I was struggling to find where I could join in God's work in the world and where my gifts could be used most effectively and faithfully. My CPE experience was instrumental in my becoming a chaplain."

Mary Jo Bowman, 2007 EMS graduate and currently a chaplain resident at University Health System in Charlottesville, Va., said, "CPE at EMS was a major factor in my deciding to be a chaplain." Bowman was a nurse and massage therapist before attending seminary and enjoys being able to use her professional health background in ministry.

Jill Gerig, a 2007 EMS grad, is a chaplain resident at the University of Colorado hospital in Aurora, Co. "Chaplaincy work really puts life in perspective," she said.

"It is an honor to be with hospital patients and their families in helping them deal with difficult situations," she added. "I enjoy the challenge of offering support to total strangers in a time of crisis. I'm continually blessed by the courage and faith I see in so many patients."

"I love hearing patient's stories," Warren said. "I love providing a space for people to find new meaning in their stories, particularly when they can see where God is working and come to a sense of wholeness and completeness about their lives."

Jeff Carr, a 2005 graduate, is director of pastoral care at Bridgewater
(Va.) Retirement Community. "I enjoy participating in a community of healing that enhances life and surrounds each other in times of suffering and challenge," he stated.

Being a chaplain is no easy task.

"The amount of suffering and death can sometimes be difficult to face,"
said Bowman. "The amount of patient turnover can be dizzying, and it's hard when a patient I know well dies, especially when I'm off duty."

Chaplain duties vary, depending on the setting.

For Gerig, in a large teaching hospital, her primary duty is to visit patients on her assigned floors, cardiology and oncology. At least once a week she is "on-call" to anywhere in the hospital. She has also worked with the hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine, offering spiritual counseling to others.

Carr's duties include planning Bible studies and worship services for residents as well as spending time visiting with residents and their families.

Chaplains learn to be present to others

"The most important thing I learned in CPE was how to be present," Warren said. "For me, that means resisting the urge to flee, physically, emotionally or spiritually when someone says something that is difficult for you."

For Gerig, CPE helped overcome her fear of hospitals. "I almost tried to get out of doing a hospital placement in Harrisonburg," she said. "It is still miraculous to me that I can be a hospital resident."

Carr's CPE experiences formed and informed his ministry. "One of the most valuable things I learned in CPE is the importance of a group," he said.
"Groups support challenges, encourages and guides me in my ministry. It reminds me that I am not alone, which is what I want to model in my ministry."

The CPE program at EMS, directed by Kenton T. Derstine, recently received reaccreditation from the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. EMS was also awarded a "best practices" award for the CPE handbook each student receives. The handbook provides students with a well-developed syllabus and learning goals. The EMS program was the only one in the state of Virginia to receive this award.

posted 2/26/08