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How our chaplains make a difference

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chaplains122013.jpgBy Lindsay Lewis

Andrea Ferguson will never forget a defining moment in her education as a chaplain.

During a visit with a patient of a different religious background than her own, Ferguson sensed she might not be the right chaplain to meet the patient's spiritual needs. As she prepared to leave, she was asked to stay -- the patient simply needed someone to be there.

"I'll always remember that moment, because it shows what being a chaplain is all about," Ferguson says. "We're here to meet our patients where they are and journey with them."

MD Anderson chaplains are graduate-educated members of our interdisciplinary care teams who provide spiritual care to patients, families and staff of all faith traditions.

"We're here to contribute to the holistic care of patients and caregivers," says Gale Kennebrew, D.Min., director of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Education. "And we respect the beliefs of all people who come into our care."

Different from most clergy
Chaplain David Stouter admits the role of a chaplain in a health care setting sometimes is misunderstood.

"We often have to explain how our job differs from other clergy, especially since many hospitals work only with volunteer ministers from the local community to serve their patient population," he says.

What sets professional chaplains apart from most community clergy is their agenda, or lack thereof. While many spiritual leaders shepherd people into their own faith traditions, chaplains in clinical settings are here to serve a spiritually diverse community of patients, even practicing atheists.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about chaplains is that we're here to convert people to Christianity," says Jose Cedillo, manager, Chaplaincy and Pastoral Education. "As a chaplain in a clinical setting, one of the first things you learn is that it's not about you, your beliefs or what you think. We're here to connect to our patients to meet whatever spiritual need they may have."

What also distinguishes our chaplains from most is their highly specialized education in the clinical environment. In fact, MD Anderson is one of only five accredited programs in the Houston area that offer clinical pastoral education. The training and education of other ministers in pastoral care is part of our educational mission.

More than just prayer
Another thing that sets our chaplains apart is their integrated approach to spiritual care.

"Most people think chaplains are simply here to pray," Kennebrew says. "Our patients have many needs, in addition to prayer. Some patients may not pray at all."

While our chaplains do pray with patients, families and employees when requested, a greater part of their mission involves listening and connecting to patients, assessing spiritual distress, facilitating interventions when necessary, completing plans of care, leading religious observances throughout the year and teaching fellows as part of our accredited education program.

"Many cancer patients tell us that they feel a sense of loss -- they've lost their roles, their jobs, their energy and their plans for their futures," Stouter says. "Once we hear their stories and understand their spirituality, we're able to help them find meaning and purpose in light of what they've lost."

To receive spiritual support at MD Anderson, page the operator at 713-792-7090, call the Chaplaincy Office at 713-792-7184 or visit the website.

This blog post originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly publication for employees.

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