Last updated: August 18. 2014 5:36PM - 2453 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

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A hospital chaplain can provide invaluable religious and emotional support to patients and families facing medical crises, but Northern Hospital of Surry County has eliminated its full-time chaplain position and will rely on volunteers instead.

“I think there’s been some economic changes in health care over the summer,” Terri L. Engle, the former chaplain, said of the monetary considerations that caused her position to recently be cut.

“I’m not a financial person, so I can’t really explain all the details on that,” Engle added.

But Ashly Lancaster, an NHSC spokesman, explained that the move occurred “as part of our ongoing cost-containment efforts.” The hospital slashed about 15 positions last fall, and Lancaster mentioned that seven more have been eliminated since January.

“They had talked about cutting back,” Engle said of NHSC officials, and her job was included among the staff reductions.

The elimination of the full-time chaplain could be viewed as surprising, given that the availability of that person is highly touted on the NHSC website, which states the chaplain “is available 24 hours a day for spiritual or emotional support, prayer or sacraments.

“To request a chaplain, please dial the operator,” the website further says.

Ironically, the position had been expanded to 40 hours per week in May, after being only 10 hours when Engle became chaplain in 2010. She had completed her 94th day as the full-time chaplain in July, before the job was cut.

“And, of course, personally I’m disappointed,” added Engle, who has been a chaplain since 2006. She is ordained through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and board-certified as a hospital chaplain. Engle also has a master of divinity degree from Wake Forest University and is associated with Heart Two Hands Therapy.

While at Northern Hospital, Engle was available to respond to patients and families as needed and believes the chaplaincy service was valuable. The providing of spiritual care is among the factors considered in the hospital’s accreditation by a national agency, she said.

“Studies have shown that there is a correlation between spiritual health and physical health,” Engle said. “Spiritual care is very important…sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.”

Volunteer Emphasis

Under the most recent program structure, there has been some paid support for the NHSC chaplaincy function since 2010, according to Lancaster, the hospital spokesperson, referring to the 10-hour schedule Engle initially operated under.

Now the supplying of that service will depend on volunteers, who typically are pastors of local churches.

“When I left, we had nine,” Engle said of the volunteer force.

Lancaster, the hospital spokesperson, indicated that the chaplain’s role won’t be forsaken.

“Spiritual care services has been and will continue to be a service available to all patients, families and staff of Northern Hospital,” she added.

“As part of our ongoing cost-containment efforts, spiritual care services will be provided through local clergy volunteers, a program the hospital has operated successfully in years past and is consistent with other hospitals of similar size in our region.”

Members of the clergy who might be interested in joining the volunteer program can contact Tina Beasley, volunteer and gift shop coordinator, at 336-783-8196.

Engle said whether the all-volunteer arrangement will prove adequate to meet NHSC’s patient and family needs is a “wait and see” situation, but she is of the belief that it takes a special individual to fill the role properly.

Similar to full-time professionals, volunteer chaplains undergo specialized training to address the unique aspects of that type of ministerial work, which includes not proselytizing, or “preaching” to those served, Engle said.

“It’s really about meeting the people where they are at and walking beside them on their journey.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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