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REFLECTIONS: Hospice Ministers offer a presence needed by all Bishop Woodie W. White, Dec 28, 2011
Bishop Woodie White
By Bishop Woodie W. White UMR Columnist
In the last several years, I have become more knowledgeable of a very specialized ministry to those who are terminally ill. Hospice Ministry, it is called.
Increasingly, hospitals and other health care facilities are including chaplains as a part of an interdisciplinary team of caregivers, when it is determined that a patient’s condition is such that no additional medical intervention can cure, or even arrest a disease or physical condition. Death is inevitable.
The response is to make the person as comfortable as possible and to surround the patient with the best medical and other care. The hope is that in those final days or months—however many remain—the patient will be granted appropriate attention and care. And dignity. It is hoped that a good death will accompany a good life.
There are now a number of United Methodist clergy whose full-time ministry is to those in the final days of life. I think it takes a special person with incredible skills, sensitivity and faith, to be engaged fully in such a special ministry. I know many such ministers. They are a unique, caring cadre of pastors.
Recently, in a gathering where I was present, a Hospice Minister shared the nature of her ministry, her personal challenges and the privilege she has to be in such intimate contact with persons who know their death is imminent. Final days, or months, can be filled with joy, sadness, anxiety, fear, and even welcome. What a gift to have a caring pastor walking with one in those final days.
I suppose all of us at some point may need some measure of hospice care. I decided to look up the definition of the word “hospice,” to see how it might be defined. Here is one quite simple and comprehensive definition: “a facility or program designed to provide a caring environment for supplying the physical and emotional needs of the terminally ill.” Of course I would add spiritual needs to the definition. My admiration for these special pastors who have accepted the call to this ministry to individuals and their families has grown, as I observe their commitment and performance. It can be emotionally draining for the minister.
At this recent gathering, interestingly, one person shared the concern a patient had shown for her as a minister, knowing that she would later help plan as well as lead the funeral service. However, as one Hospice Minister noted, “It is a privilege to minister to those in the latter days of life.”
Helping someone face final days can be a challenge. Sometimes, a person seeks to mend the past as well as prepare for the future. This is not always welcomed—or easy—for their friends and loved ones. Often, the pastor is called upon to help the family members as well as the patient.
In many cases, a person in hospice care is not a member of a faith community or even a believer. In some instances the person may have had a negative experience with religion or the church. But now they are calling upon a pastor, perhaps reluctantly or with uncertainty about what to ask. And the minister responds. That is a gift.
I am mindful of these special shepherds. Often unheralded, and with little recognition, they provide this specialized ministry to the dying and their families day in and day out, month after month, year after year. One wonders, how do they do it? They too must get an extra measure of tending from God, who looks upon them with favor and knows their need.
As 2011 ends and 2012 begins, I am grateful for this unique ministry that a cadre of carers has offered to so many people during the past year—and will bring to persons yet unknown, in the year to come.
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology.