A Chaplain Is Saddened by the Oklahoma Hospital Story, and Has a Question For You February 12, 2014

A Chaplain Is Saddened by the Oklahoma Hospital Story, and Has a Question For You

Tim Mayhall is a chaplain at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. In my brief interactions with him yesterday, I got the impression that he’s earnest and committed to the job he loves, and that he finds it easy to make common ground with non-believers. He sees a lot of pain and fear, being that as a chaplain, he covers emergency and trauma, as well as surgical intensive care. Inevitably, some of the people he helps care for are atheists and agnostics.

Mayhall got in touch after reading the articles on this site about the Ardmore, Oklahoma Catholic hospital where a receptionist told non-believer clients that atheists shouldn’t be allowed to procreate.

He explains,

I was saddened by their marginalization and encouraged by your readers to think that there should be another, better conversation about how to acknowledge and respect people without religious faith in that environment.

I am not sure that many people are aware of how clinical chaplains are trained and how they work.  In general, every person has certain resources that they bring to bear to times of need: stories, experiences, heroes, hopes and fears, etc. For some people, these resources are networked into shared narrative constructs, or religions, that are ritualized and remembered in various ways.

The work of the chaplain is to aid individuals in summoning those resources, to adjust them where necessary, and to help a person or community to integrate potentially life-changing experiences and illnesses into their lives in a healthy way. … Chaplains, when they are skilled, work across cultures and regardless of affiliations to serve people as they create, test, and employ those structures in critical moments.

In a nutshell, Mayhall works with all kinds of people, and a patient’s religious affiliation or lack thereof doesn’t change the way he approaches the job, which is without judging and without engaging in conversion attempts.

Now, to his question.

Currently, I am working with peers in my own setting to revise our admission screening and assessment tools for Chaplain Consults and Referrals. It occurred to me that it might be wise to ask you and your community for advice: Assuming that clinical Chaplains, who are not necessarily religious in the conventional sense, can be of some use to individuals who are not necessarily religious, how could a screening and assessment process in the setting of a hospital be more respectful and inclusive towards people without a religious faith?

If you were being admitted to a hospital, what kinds of questions would be okay regarding your own, personal beliefs and experiences and community memberships and support structures? As healthcare workers, we know that these things have a tremendous impact upon personal health, well-being and recovery. How can/should we participate in that part of a patient’s life in the absence of a religious belief?

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