Ministry chaplains lighten emotional, spiritual burdens of pandemic caregivers

September 1, 2020


Chaplains in the Catholic ministry have been a supportive presence among hospital staff caring for COVID-19 patients, helping staff process and cope with pandemic-related trauma, grief and exhaustion.

Mary Salois, right, leads a touchless blessing of the hands of nurses at Mercy Hospital Washington in Washington, Missouri. Salois manages mission and pastoral services for the hospital.

In addition to providing spiritual succor and an empathetic ear, they're serving light refreshments and a little levity to overburdened staff.


"People need to know that there is someone there specifically to address spiritual and emotional distress, and people need someone that they at least perceive has a 'red phone' to God to offer prayers, support and some assurances," says James Austin, a chaplain with Mercy Virtual Care, the telehealth arm of the Chesterfield, Missouri-based Mercy system. He says of chaplains, "We have a calling for such a time as this, and God has given us the tools to provide comfort and support in these difficult times."

In harm's way
Ministry chaplains who spoke to Catholic Health World say their system and facility leadership has been concerned since preparations for the pandemic began about how the crisis would impact the emotional and spiritual well-being of hospital staff.


Deacon Ken Potzman, who recently retired as pastoral care director for Mercy St. Louis, says his department was "made aware that the progression of this would be rapid, and we were asked to reconfigure our outreach, spending 60% to 75% of our time supporting our co-workers. Our preexisting protocols changed almost immediately. We were not used to dealing with a crisis of this magnitude and the impact it would have on our co-workers.

"One major concern was for fatigue, fear and stress created by this pandemic on our co-workers on the front lines of caring for our patients," he says.

'Pre-traumatic stress syndrome'
Rev. Jerry Vander Lee is chaplaincy manager of Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He says his department has been concerned "for the emotional and physical well-being of the chaplains and the hospital staff. Many hospital staff members are very young and may or may not have previously experienced trauma in their personal lives. These are frightening times for all — particularly for those that may be considering their own mortality as they place themselves at risk, even as they care for others."

Vander Lee

Rev. Vander Lee adds that stress is not just affecting staff who are working during surges. He says one of his chaplain colleagues has referred to "pre-traumatic stress syndrome." Rev. Vander Lee explains: "As we prepare for a surge in COVID positive patients, we are anticipating anxiety that is yet to come — ironically, this anticipation also produces its own anxiety." Staff members have told him they are afraid for themselves, their families, their colleagues, their finances.

Mary Salois, manager of mission and pastoral services for Mercy's Washington, Missouri, hospital and connected clinics, says additional stress comes when a colleague contracts COVID. "We had one of our providers hospitalized with the virus. In a small facility, that had a big impact and our co-workers were anxious, both for that provider and for what it might mean for all of them."

Checking in, leaning in
Rev. Chance Beeler is manager of pastoral and spiritual care for SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital – St. Charles and affiliated facilities in the St. Louis suburb. He and his fellow chaplains regularly touch base with staff in all hospital departments.


"We want to make sure our staff is taken care of," he says. He notes that St. Joseph's "Care for the Caregivers" peer support program for nurses has reinforced the nurses' efforts to look out for each other's emotional well-being during the pandemic.

Rev. Greg Creasy directs the department of spiritual care and mission at St. Mary's Medical Center in Huntington, West Virginia. He says to be accessible to staff, there is a chaplain in-house around the clock.


Together with the hospital's representative for the employee assistance program, Rev. Creasy rounds throughout the hospital once per week. "We talk with staff about what they are feeling — their fears, their anxieties. We help them with the emotional piece." He also leads prayer services for the staff.

Rev. Vander Lee says, "Chaplains are called to climb into the trenches with people who may be scared and suffering." He says Avera McKennan staffers have told him that the chaplains have brought them much-needed calm that has been essential to their sense of emotional well-being.

Deacon Potzman says in addition to being a supportive presence, chaplains at Mercy St. Louis provide staff with one-on-one counseling, prayer resources and information for coping with fatigue and stress. Early in the pandemic, they frequently performed touchless blessings of the hands of caregivers in the COVID units.


Jim Erwin supervises pastoral and volunteer services for Mercy Hospital Cassville and Aurora, two critical access hospitals in southwest Missouri. He sends out emails of encouragement to staff, meets with teams of co-workers and looks for opportunities to strike up casual conversations with colleagues. He prays for and with staff, that they will have "spiritual resilience, strength, and enhanced ability to stay calm in a crisis, as well as endurance."

Austin at Mercy Virtual Care has been providing virtual spaces to debrief and gathering staff via WebEx and other meeting formats to share encouraging words and prayers. During his biweekly "Spiritual Nourishment" segment via WebEx, people share uplifting thoughts and stories. "The attendance continues to climb as more people become aware of the opportunity to receive some nourishment for their souls," he says.

James Austin, a chaplain with Mercy Virtual Care in Chesterfield, Missouri, at work. In addition to counseling patients, he provides virtual meeting spaces where Mercy staff can pray together, and he gives communication tips to chaplains who are new to virtual care.

Salois of Mercy Washington says she has found humor to be a release valve for staff. "In the midst of co-workers' fears about what they might be bringing home to their families, which is a serious and real fear, we are sharing a lot of silly stories about our routines of stripping down" before entering the house to reduce contagion risk for family members. "We hope their neighbors know that they are health care workers," she jokes.

She says through both serious and light-hearted connections, "we can remind our teams of God's love, grace, hope and perseverance."



Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.