Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 34

Caring for the Dying & the Living

By Stephen Henwood.

Baptist Minister

and Chaplaincy Team Leader at St Francis' Hospice, Romford Essex

It was a warm, sunny late summer's day in 1993 as I walked into St Francis' Hospice to begin my new appointment as the first full time chaplain employed by the hospice. Previously I had worked in a Church based ministerial appointment coupled with a part time Chaplaincy post at the local General Hospital. A full time Chaplaincy was a new venture and like most new employees I had mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation. I believed this was where God wanted me and now there was no going back. Eleven years later I have spent time reflecting on the eleven most significant lessons learned over those years.

1. I work best in a team. I lead the Chaplaincy team, a mixture of ordained and lay people from various traditions and theological persuasions. I am also a member of a multidisciplinary team working to provide specialist care to our patients, both in the hospice and in their own homes. Each day this team, comprising medical, nursing, physiotherapy, social work, occupational therapy and Chaplaincy services, meets to review the care given to each patient. Each discipline has its own responsibilities and the team members rely on each other to bring that uniqueness to patient care. In Paul's words "the body is not made up of one part but of many" (1 Corinthians 12:14). At times tensions arise, but the needs of our patients and their families are paramount. My fellow team members stimulate my thinking and notice when I am finding things difficult. Their support is priceless. When complex situations arise, we work together. We also laugh together and share the boxes of chocolates kindly given by patients' relatives!

I also attend local Ministers' meetings and enjoy the company of other ministers. Some local ministers rarely attend these meetings, an isolationism I find mystifying. Ministry can be lonely, so we need the friendship and encouragement of other people, and I for one would not wish to work alone ever again.

2. There is a gulf between church and non-church culture. The perception non-church people have of Christians is that on the whole we are unnecessarily critical, somewhat irrelevant, amazingly boring, dreadfully judgmental and desperately out of touch with reality. Apart from that, they like us!

We may try hard to reach out, but many do not want to listen to our message because of the perceptions they have of Christians. It is not that the Gospel is irrelevant, but looking at the Church, others deem it so. The other Sunday I drove past a church as people were leaving. They looked so unhappy. By contrast those leaving the local pub were smiling. Many people are struggling with life and they have real questions, which we need to address: "Where is God in my family's suffering?" "If God is interested in me why are you so critical of my behaviour?" are two questions I have been asked recently. Jesus never asked anyone to come to a meeting, but met them where they were. I have no tried and tested blueprint for success, but I am convinced that we must try to think things through from the perspective of the outsider. Making our services more user friendly may be a start, but the hurdle most people have to climb over to even enter a church is enormous. How would we respond to the suggestion that by going into the local betting shop we will have an hour of fun that will give us hope for the next seven days? It is an alien environment and so is the Church to the majority of people.

3. Bereavement is dark but light dawns as the journey progresses. The death of a close relative or friend is the most difficult experience we will ever face. Recovery takes time, plus the wise counsel and genuine support of trusted friends who show that they really care. We can be too hasty in expecting the bereaved to resume usual church duties and commitments. I have heard comments, which suggest that the bereaved should be getting back to normal, for "after all, the death occurred six weeks ago." Many years ago Elizabeth Kubler-Ross discovered that the bereaved person might feel intense feelings of sorrow for up to at least five years. This is normal. Our faith does help because while we grieve we have hope. We mourn because we have lost someone special. Do not expect too much too soon. Coming back to Church may be all the bereaved are able to do for several weeks, and even that is only possible by arriving late and leaving before the final hymn finishes.

Last week I received a card from someone I first met when her husband was a patient a few years ago. I conducted his funeral and when I met her shortly afterwards she could only see her future as "blackness and without point or purpose." Her card says that she is starting to see the light dawn and that she is slowly thinking of what to do next. She still misses her husband but she can now contemplate a future. It has taken time, but light has dawned.

4. Humour is essential. People I meet who don't really understand what the hospice is all about have sometimes commented that they think working with seriously ill patients must be a very depressing experience. I can honestly say I have never felt the hospice to be a depressing place. There are times of extreme sadness, but I have surprisingly discovered that the hospice is full of humour. This has been a remarkable and wonderful discovery. Humour, rather than causing distress to patients, helps them cope and they can often be the instigators of comical events.

Churches can learn from this experience. Humour incorrectly used can be very cutting and hurtful, but among a group of trusted people, it is a powerful emotion for good. It is too easy to become too serious about Church life. Let humour loose and see what an impact and difference it can make to people's lives.

5. The 'cure of souls' is being neglected. I conducted the funeral of a patient whose spouse attended her local church. A keen faith helped them cope with great fortitude, but one of our nurses had asked me to make contact and visit because no-one from the Church ever visited them at home. Once the funeral had been arranged, their Minister asked the funeral director why he had not been asked to conduct the service. A pastoral visit, a prayer, anointing with oil, Holy Communion would have all been warmly welcomed.

This may seem to be an extreme case, but a failure to visit people who are seriously in need is too common. Patients with Church connections have, on occasions, spent several days in the hospice waiting for a pastoral visit. Let me say to my fellow clergy that your visits do bring an enormous amount of help to patients and their relatives. Sadly, for some, visitation appears to not be a priority.

The art of 'being' needs to be viewed as important as the act of 'doing'. Visitation is time-consuming and can be extremely draining as it raises one's own grief and arouses feelings of helplessness. Being with those in their time of need was at the heart of the ministry of Jesus and if today it is carried out well will present unexpected evangelistic opportunities as friends and family see how the Christian community cares for one another. After all, Jesus had something to say about Christian love being a demonstration to the world of the relevance of the Gospel.

6. Personal devotions are essential. For all my Christian experience I have found the need to be disciplined in prayer.

Over the years I have used several aids to stimulate and help me keep to this routine. Different Bible reading notes, following the Anglican lectionary, reading through a particular biblical book. Set prayers have been very helpful at times. I have tried M'Cheyne's calendar for daily reading, but I found I became more concerned at ticking the passages off than actually reading them. This was when I started to see devotions as separate from study. Small portions from the Scriptures that I can recall during the day are the cornerstone of my devotional life. It is amazing how opportunities present themselves to use these passages in different situations. Although not a daily experience, I feel the need to receive Communion on a regular basis. The brokenness of Christ's body and the broken lives I meet on a regular basis find a special focus in the Last Supper.

7. Tiredness kills the joy of ministry. I sometimes feel like a sponge that has been left in an empty bath all day. When it is finally picked up it is heavy with cold water, which it has held onto all day. To be of any use it needs squeezing and the water released. I too feel I hold a lot of things people have shared with me during the course of a day. For me tiredness comes from being in a place which sees an enormous amount of suffering. When I am tired I start resenting the pastoral duties, which I normally enjoy. I need to watch that I do not take it out on others in the hospice, although my family will have suffered from my irritability on more than one occasion! When I planned our staff retreat last year I ensured there was time simply to walk and kick leaves. We need time out with the objective of doing nothing special but enjoying the space and have our physical and spiritual batteries recharged.

After a few months at the hospice I had an important conversation with a very experienced hospice chaplain. I had been feeling tired with the physical and emotional challenges of the post. In response to my question "How do you keep going?", he candidly remarked that he always had a holiday booked into the diary. These have proved wise words. It is not always possible to fly away into the sun, but knowing a rest is a few weeks away is essential.

8. It has been impossible to truly settle in a Church. It's not that I think that Church attendance no longer matters. It does, but it's not easy being a Minister and sitting in the congregation. At times one is treated differently and more than one person addresses me as 'Mr Henwood' rather than by first name.

My Sunday commitments, both at the hospice and taking services in various other churches, compound the situation, making regular attendance at a single church impossible.

This set of circumstances has been a disappointment of the last eleven years. I know from other full time Chaplains that they have similar feelings. On a positive note it is good living so close to the capital and having the opportunity to occasionally visit one of the large congregations in London. To experience how others 'do church' has been worthwhile. However, the regret at not feeling part of normal Church life remains, something which also affects my wife. Delighted at not being treated simply as Stephen's wife, she misses the joys and challenges of being at the heart of things, seeking to encourage and help those who are seeking pastoral support in one way or another.

9. Still evangelical but more reflective. It was once supposed by some that those who found their way into Chaplaincy had lost the cutting edge of their faith and drifted into liberalism. There are others who have felt that Chaplaincy was for those who could not make it in church ministry and looked for an easy way out. Both are thankfully incorrect. Today, many Chaplains would be content to describe themselves as evangelical, but, like me, they also see themselves as reflective and contemplative. I am thankful for the theological training I received, but during the past eleven years I have been thrilled to discover the writings of Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich The Desert Fathers, John Henry Newman and others. These writers have encouraged me to think and reflect much more theologically, openly and spiritually than I ever did in the past. They have enabled me to see God at work in different situations and to appreciate a reverence for the Bible as a whole. These writers have sustained me much more than I have been by evangelical authors.

10. I do miss Church ministry. Those who look back at what I wrote for my eighth lesson might feel I am in need of a therapist, but bear with me for a moment. There is, I believe, something very special in being given the pastoral charge over a congregation of Christians. It is an enormous privilege full of deeply rewarding opportunities. There are also many disappointments and heartaches. I do miss these joys and disappointments. My field of pastoral experience today is very focused and this has allowed me to develop very specialised skills, but at times I would like to see more rejoicing and less weeping.

11. I need a study project to keep me focused. In common with many Ministers I read to keep me aware of developments and thinking pertinent to my own particular field. I have come to realise that I need to stretch my mind in other areas as well. There is much to learn and appreciate and it is strange how these unrelated work-studies find their way into my everyday ministry. These small projects refresh me for some of the draining pastoral encounters and stop me focusing solely on my small world.

I also recommend reading and studying for pleasure. For example, I discovered the writings of Walter Brueggemann. When times are tough, having something to feed my mind has been a godsend. Bill Bryson, John Grisham and Robert Goddard also help too!

Eleven lessons over eleven years. There have been many more. I am thankful for the Lord's leading along the journey and hope the learning process will continue for many years to come.

Stephen Henwood

The Revd Stephen Henwood is a Baptist minister and Chaplaincy Team Leader at St Francis' Hospice, Romford Essex.

Ministry Today

You are reading Caring for the Dying and the Living by Stephen Henwood, part of Issue 34 of Ministry Today, published in June 2005.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2021