Shepherd Center Chaplains Tend to Spiritual Needs of Patients, Families and Staff Members
While doing his residency at an Atlanta hospital several years ago, Ben Rose walked into a patient’s room and introduced himself as a chaplain. The woman began screaming.
“She thought I was the angel of death,” says Ben, now one of the two chaplains at Shepherd Center.
“People make a lot of assumptions about us,” says Alan Roof, the other chaplain at Shepherd Center. “They think we’re just here to pray or show up at the time of death. That’s not what we’re about. We want to see who you are and how you are.”
The chaplains at Shepherd Center tend to the spiritual needs of patients and their families, but also minister to staff members. In one case they conducted a service for a beloved service dog that died.
Alan, 51, grew up in Colorado and had a career in hospital information technology before coming to Shepherd Center eight and a half years ago. When he was in college, Alan’s brother died and he met a hospital chaplain.
“I thought that was such a cool job, helping people who need to talk and get help,” Alan says. “You don’t have to be a great theologian to help people.”
Ben, 35, is from Maryland’s eastern shore. He was pastor of a church and a hospice chaplain before coming to Shepherd Center four years ago.
“I enjoyed hospice care because you see someone’s journey and help with grieving,” he says. “But I love working at Shepherd because patients come back, and we see how they’re doing in their new lives.”
Chaplains attend seminary school, undergo three years of additional pastoral care education and do a residency in a hospital or prison. Unlike ministers who have congregations and specific beliefs, chaplains generalize to accommodate people of every faith.
“In a church setting, you have to be narrower in your approach,” Alan says. “I’m more open-minded and entertain different ideas. It’s making spirituality work on a day-to-day basis.”
With patients and families at Shepherd Center experiencing pain, shock and fear, the chaplains work in what Alan calls an atmosphere of “collective grief.”
“The challenge early on is that the injuries can be so bad,” Ben says. “There’s the loss of the world as it was supposed to be, and everything feels profane. Talking with patients and their families about things like this is very serious. It’s difficult stuff. It really is an honor to be with folks in that sacred time.”
Alan’s duties include working with wounded service men, women and veterans in the SHARE Military Initiative and helping them see how their new life can be good, as well as different.
“I talk with them about their journey without repercussions or judgment,” he says. “Whatever they want to talk about, I’ll listen.”
However, they do not proselytize or make promises, and they avoid ready-made explanations.
“We don’t try to change people,” Ben says. “We help them redefine things so they can see their new activities as spiritual practice. It’s experiential learning for them and for us. Every day is different.”
Alan says, “When someone asks me why something happens, I’ll say, ‘I don't know. Let’s look at that. Tell me what you’re thinking.’ We don’t have the answer. We usually have a lot of questions. When people’s lives have been torn apart, we try to help make their faith work for them. We’re the mechanics of the religious world.”
For more information on Shepherd Center’s Chaplaincy Program, visit shepherd.org/chaplaincy.
Written by John Christensen
Photos by Louie Favorite
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neurological conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.