By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Understanding precisely what a chaplain is – and does – may be unclear to many.
Meet Chaplain James Richardson, head of Pastoral Care at North Mississippi Medical Center. Richardson took on this position in 2005 after 10 years of involvement with the NMMC hospice.
A chaplain is a minister working in a setting that has no official religious affiliation. Examples include prisons, universities, branches of the military, even sports teams. Unlike conventional pastors, chaplains do not have a set congregation they minister to at a set time, and because of this, chaplains must be flexible to all cultures and faiths.
In such pressurized circumstances, Richardson uses the tools of hopefulness, laughter and sincerity more than theology or dogma.
“Pastors are a constant part of their congregation’s life,” Richardson said. “But someone may only be at the hospital one night. Making a difference in that short of time is hard.”
Victims of illness, accidents or those facing surgery are pressed with issues they may have never considered.
As chaplain, Richardson shepherds patients and their families through the stages of grief, which include shock, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance.
“The bargaining stage is most often linked with religious practices as patients begin to read the Bible or vow to be a more constant participator in the church,” he said
Keeping patients and their families in clear communication is crucial through the process. Richard said without communication, patients will take their anxieties out on the ones closest to them.
Patients wonder “Will I still have my job?” “How will I take care of my family?” “Will my family still love me with my condition?” Some patients worry about the emotional toll their illnesses will take on family members, while others fret over leaving their loved ones in a bad financial situation.
But ultimately every patient wants two things, Richardson said.
“They don’t want to die alone, away from their loved ones, and they want to know that it is OK,” Richardson said.
Pastors vs. chaplains
As a pastor, a minister in a church setting guides and defines his congregation’s religious interpretation according to the doctrine of his or her denomination.
Chaplains, however, must meet patients where they are, spiritually.
“Crisis urges them to find meaning,” Richardson said.
His job is not to dictate religion, but to explore the faith and values that come to the surface when the patient is confronted with illness.
“Pastors promote the faith of their denomination, but chaplains promote the faith of the patients,” he said.
That’s not to say Richardson sees himself apart from other ministers. In fact, he welcomes other pastors as they come to visit their members, and informs them on crucial issues surrounding illness, such as hope and the importance of laughter.
“My job is to listen to patients as they walk me through the different rooms of their lives,” said Richardson, “They talk about the things they are proud of, their struggles, things they haven’t even told their families.”
Pastoral Care Center
The Pastoral Care Center is comprised of Richardson, 20 volunteer chaplains and six CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) chaplains. Last year they made over 24,000 visits to patients across 18 counties, from newborns to people over 100 years old.
Like pastors, chaplainship requires a Master of Divinity degree, ordination and licensing; volunteer chaplains only have to be licensed and ordained.
For many, the chapel at NMMC provides an oasis of stillness amid the constant hustle and bustle of the enormous hospital. And not just for patients.
Richardson said oftentimes nurses and other members of the hospital staff can be found in the chapel in the minutes before or between shifts, praying or reading scripture. Over time, patients, staff and families have come to think of the NMMC chapel as their church, and Richardson as their pastor.
“Many of them are present at the time of a patient’s death, and it can get very heavy on the heart, carrying around their last conversations,” said Richardson. “The staff truly has a heart for the people.”