Measuring the unmeasurable — will chaplaincy’s ‘moment’ last beyond COVID-19?

Kara Tav is a hero. 

The manager of spiritual care at NYU Langone Brooklyn, Tav was recently prominently profiled in Bari Weiss’ New York Times piece about the incredible work chaplains have done amid the current crisis. Writes Weiss, “Few run toward the dying. Even fewer run toward the contagious. But chaplains do.”

They surely do. I have long compared the best chaplains to the hundreds of firefighters who ran into the Twin Towers on 9/11: “they ran towards the flames. The human instinct in the face of fire, like that of all animals, is to run. Run away from fire. But the firefighters on that day had an ethos, a belief down to their bones. . . about who a firefighter is . . . . the spiritual caregiver [also] seeks out fire—the fire that is human suffering—and runs towards it.”

What makes Rabbi Tav — and the countless other chaplains continuing to go into work every day at risk of their own lives and, maybe, sanity — do it? Do they think they are contributing to saving or lengthening lives, what social scientists and healthcare researchers would call “improved healthcare outcomes?”

There has been a movement in chaplaincy to make such claims, to do research that can prove that a visit from a chaplain can make a measurable impact on healthcare outcomes, or even to prove that prayer can be proved to help people heal physically.

But I think Tav’s example suggests a different path. Because she is not just doing incredible work, but she’s writing about it. Almost every day. In compelling, heartrending language in Facebook posts. No one can read her passionate words without saying to themselves, “wow, if I was sick and afraid in a hospital bed, I would want a person like this to be part of the team that comes and sees me. I would want somebody who helps me feel like a human being in those most dehumanizing of circumstances, who reminds me there is still something holy in the world and that I am still connected to that.”

Trace Haythorn, Executive Director and CEO for the leading US organization for training chaplains, recently wrote that in this crisis chaplaincy is starting to be seen as more important than ever: “Hospitals. Hospice. Older adult facilities. Naval vessels. Prisons. Schools. These are the pandemic hot spots, or at the very least these institution’s operations and daily lives are profoundly disrupted. And in these divergent settings, chaplains play a significant role in serving, in reminding people of their value, worth, and the importance of connection.”

This week was supposed to be the week that Haythorn’s organization, the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education of which I am a member, was supposed to have an important annual conference, to be called “The Future of Spiritual Care”. It was to have been carried out along with other major players in the US spiritual care field, like the Association of Professional Chaplains and Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.

Of course, the conference had to be canceled. But the questions to be asked about the field’s future are more important than ever. Those of us who work in the field know that no matter how heroically chaplains perform in these times, there is no assurance they will have jobs when this is over. Hospitals will surely be forced to look at their budgets carefully post-COVID. And, to the budget bureaucrat with no personal experience of the value of chaplaincy, it may seem quite easy to just slice off the budget line for chaplains. It’s happened before. 

How can we prevent this? Like I said above, the conventional wisdom within the field has become that research about measurable healthcare outcomes is the answer. But I want to suggest something different — that the only place where what we do is truly measurable is inside the human heart. But how can we get that budget bureaucrat to listen to the human heart? I think there’s only one way — to get the public at large (the customers in the business-centric language of contemporary healthcare) to demand it. We, like Tav, have to start telling our stories. To the public. In articles. In person. On social media.

Here, in Israel, where the spiritual care field is less firmly established than in the United States, it is even more important that we tell our stories in the wake of COVID-19. Hopefully, some of those stories will be heard by people who are fortunate enough to be able to write checks to support the field. These donations don’t necessarily have to be in the millions to make a huge impact. Even $10,000 a year — with some additional support of a hospital itself — could be enough to support a small chaplaincy department here. Some small number of chaplains here are already supported by such relatively modest sponsorships. These kinds of sponsorships are almost always raised by the power of personal relationships and of compelling stories, not quantitative research. 

Spiritual care is also often provided by students of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), which is a highly developed learning model where student chaplains work under the close supervision of a trained, senior chaplain educator. In Israel, organizations like Kashouvot/Merkaz Schwartz provide a high level of training based on this learning model.

Both US and Israeli CPE programs have been forced to switch to distance learning models using tools like ZOOM amid COVID-19. This has been a challenging transition especially for a field that is focused on training people how to engage in emotionally intense face-to-face encounters with people in crisis. But pioneers in CPE distance learning, like Rabbi Maurice Applebaum, have helped their colleagues learn how to use features like ZOOM’s breakout rooms and chat features to recreate the emotional intensity of the face-to-face small group learning that characterizes CPE.

I am hopeful that in Israel, in particular, a productive fast-growing time of regrowth for spiritual care will come  after this COVID-19 time, just as the fastest times for forest growth are after the devastation of a forest fire. May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we should all know healing, full and true healing of body and spirit.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
Related Topics
Related Posts