The Priest as Clinician: A Case for Intentional and Informed Involvement of Parish Clergy with Clinical Teams Caring for Parishioners

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Dunagan, Joe Kimbell
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Spiritual journeys , Healthcare of parishioners , Clergy involvement in healthcare , Palliative care , Illness as a part of the spiritual journey , Petitions for healing , School of Theology thesis 2012 , School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee , University of the South
A challenge for parish clergy is to minister to parishioners as they experience illnesses in such a way as to help transform the experience of being sick from one of objectification and isolation, to an experience that can be interpreted as part of their spiritual journeys. This thesis illustrates how barriers to spiritual care of parishioners during times of illness can be breached and parish priests can become full participants in the healthcare team. To be integral in the delivery of care, clergy must be intentional and informed. Narratives of persons confronting illness while being objectified and isolated by the healthcare system are utilized to illustrate this thesis. These stories include early seventeenth century Anglican priest and metaphysical poet, John Donne; Sue Baier, who wrote about her experience of being paralyzed for weeks in a modern intensive care unit; the main character in Margaret Edson’s play about a Donne scholar with terminal cancer; and, stories adapted from the author’s ministry. The divergent understanding of spirituality is problematic, but there is agreement among clergy and clinicians that spirituality understood in some fashion is important. This common ground can be an entry point for parish clergy who seek opportunities to interact with clinicians. The medicalization of illness occurs when clinicians focus on treating the disease, i.e. curing or changing the course of the illness. This treatment is typically data driven, algorithmic and influenced by costs. With clergy involvement, all healthcare can be more holistic. The clinical term palliative refers to treatment that aggressively manages physical, emotional, social and spiritual symptoms and which addresses the patient and family as a unit of care. A palliative approach to episodic, chronic and terminal illness that involves a patient’s clergy and parish complements clinical interventions and may affect outcomes. Anglican incarnational theology holds that God is with us in our suffering. The prayers of the Church include petitions for healing but there is no denial of death. The prayers for sanctification of suffering suggest that illness can be a part of our spiritual journeys. These theological and liturgical spiritual disciplines are suspect in clinical settings where spirituality is appreciated but not well defined and certainly not of primary importance to healthcare professionals. Parish clergy need not be daunted by the realities of the healthcare system or defeated by its clinical culture, language, social strata and rules. The key to becoming effective in clinical settings and integral to the care of sick parishioners is intentionality, information and focus, one soul at a time.