At 2am Pastor Steve Stephenson entered the patient’s room. He had been called into the hospital a few hours earlier to support the family of another patient who had passed away. He could have been on his way home now, but he felt impressed to check on a patient who had previously spoken about his sleeping difficulties. Entering the room, Pastor Stephenson saw that the 49-year-old father was deeply distressed. With tears streaming down his face, he poured out his heart. “This is no coincidence that you are here at this time. I am so troubled, am so uncomfortable, am not able to sleep, I need your help,” the patient said. They talked about life and death, cancer and choices. The subject of God came up: about how God is a God of love and not a God of punishment. Pastor Stephenson held his hand and they prayed. At 4:40am the man accepted Jesus as the Lord of his life. He died later that morning.
Such encounters are the daily reality for Pastor Stephenson as the head spiritual carer (chaplain) at Sydney Adventist Hospital. Working in the oncology, palliative and intensive care wards, his role most often involves preparing people for death, accompanying them on their journey, and helping them to find peace and hope at a time when they feel that all is lost.
“My job is unlike any other job; every encounter is a new person,” he says. “You walk into a room, all of a sudden they might ask you, ‘Hey, what is Easter? I have always heard about it, but what is it?’ In the next room I might be asked, ‘Why is God doing this to me? Why am I getting this bad news?’ So literally I cannot prepare a script. As I walk into every room my prayer is ‘Lord give me the wisdom’ because only He knows what’s going to happen there and it’s only God’s wisdom that can lead in this work.”
For Pastor Stephenson, his priority is to provide emotional support to the patient and their families, who come from all backgrounds and faiths. “I don’t go in with the mindset of evangelism. I am there to support and care for them. I talk about God if the patient wants me to go there and I feel it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “It’s challenging but I enjoy the challenges because the fruits that I get from those encounters are really beyond comprehension.”
Along with patient support, he is also at the frontline of staff wellbeing, providing counselling and debriefing sessions to help the doctors and nurses cope with the many confronting and distressing situations they experience.
But who is providing support to the spiritual carers? Pastor Stephenson says he will often pick up a book or watch something on YouTube to take his mind off a particularly confronting situation, “but it’s not like we can forget it”. The establishment of a support network for spiritual carers is a positive step towards addressing this need.
And perhaps there also needs to be a change of attitude within the Church. In many respects chaplains have not been seen in the same league as church pastors, possibly because their work is behind the scenes and many people don’t really understand what they do. As they quietly and faithfully go about their job of caring for others in often distressing circumstances, they deserve our recognition for being some of the most special people on the planet.
To be part of an initiative that prays for the spiritual carers and their ministry, contact San Prayer Partners: Prayer@sah.org.au.