The healing power of a listening ear

“Our job is to listen.”

That’s how Margaret Johnston-Jones summarizes the role of the chaplain in the hospital. It’s not about preaching to people or trying to convert them.

“We are here,” says Johnston-Jones, “To be a resource to the people who come through our doors. Not to win them over, but to walk with people who need us.”

Johnston-Jones, who works as a Chaplain of Spiritual and Religious Care at Lakeridge Health just east of Toronto, is ordained as an Anglican Minister, but she sees chaplaincy as her true calling. It’s a demanding job that can be very unpredictable.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a typical day, to be honest,” she says. “As a part of the inter-professional care team, we take part in some of the rounds in the various units. During the rounds you may find someone who wants to connect with you. More often, though, I find that just by walking through the hospital, people will come up to me and start to talk. “Sometimes, I get approached directly by patients or family members but more often our staff who refer me to a patient. Doctors and nurses get to know their patients and their needs really well, and quite often they’re the people who ask us to come in to help.”

Lakeridge Health believes that spiritual and emotional wellbeing can make a real positive difference when it comes to physical healing. According to the chaplains, this can mean shorter hospital stays, better pain management and an improved overall sense of wellbeing. The spiritual and religious care team – which is made up of chaplains, staff and volunteers who work with faith communities – try to follow up with people who declare their religious affiliation when they check into the hospital. The staff chaplains also provide care to those who have not declared their religious affiliation. These days, that means taking a broad approach to faith.

“The Durham Region is pretty ethnically and religiously diverse,” says Johnson-Jones. “In our communities we have people from every major faith, and as chaplains we need to be connected to leaders in those communities so that when patients ask us to bring in a rabbi or an imam, we have those relationships.”

The gift of silence

At Lakeridge Health – like many hospitals – the resources available to patients and families are varied. They can include worship services and music, different kinds of holy writings or scripture, specific religions items like menorahs, prayer rugs or rosaries, and the provision of sacramental practices like communion of baptism. 

Johnson-Jones points out that even though many people no longer go to religious services themselves, the “muscle memory” of faith for many people is still strong.

“A lot of folks will come to us and say ‘I’m not religious, but I believe in something bigger than myself,’” she says. “What they really mean is that they are disillusioned with mainstream religious practice or have never had a worship experience themselves. And yet these same people will often ask to join us in prayer. The need remains strong.”

In the end, though, hospital chaplaincy is less about what is done or said, but rather about silence.

“Hospitals are busy places, where people are called on to make all kinds of important decisions about their health or even their lives. It’s where everything on the continuum from birth to death can happen, and does, and people are overwhelmed,” says Johnson-Jones. “In the end, sometimes the most powerful thing you can say to a person experiencing all of that is ‘can I sit with you a while, and just listen?’”

No matter what a person’s spiritual background might be, that’s an invitation to healing that many people in a hospital find they need.

Not all hospitals have Chaplains. The presence of staff Chaplains varies both within provinces and nationally.
There is a growing awareness in the importance of holistic healing (mind, body, spirit) which is increasing the demand for spiritual care.  
It’s hard to find qualified chaplains because it’s challenging to become qualified – and stay qualified.


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