I’d always known we were a death-denying culture. I learned that first from the classic work by Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. I learned it again when I served as a hospice chaplain for six years, prior to entering parish ministry. I was amazed at how ill-prepared people and families were to deal with end-of-life issues. The majority of my patients were caught short being able to make informed practical, ethical, medical, and spiritual decisions about their care and final stage of life. Families as a whole fared little better as they had little information or knowledge to help assuage their fears and anxieties to deal responsibly with decisions about their loved ones.
A significant part of my hospice pastoral care ministry was educational. As a chaplain, I was often called upon to help patients and families understand and make decisions about such matters as DNR, intubation, palliative vs. aggressive treatments, and other medical issued. I worked with them to understand the physical and emotional process of death. I helped them work through their ethical decisions about end-of-life matters.
I found that the denial of death extended to the medical professions. I encountered doctors who were strongly opposed to encouraging their patients to enter hospice, even when medical options were exhausted, a terminal diagnosis was given, and no further feasible medical interventions were available. For patients and their families, getting past the denial of death was often the first major hurdle to redefining hope and making responsible, compassionate, and loving choices for their loved ones. Sadly, the denial of death and lack of death education in our culture resulted in almost no difference in capacity to deal with death, or to navigate the complex and multiple issues of the final stage of life, between the churched and un-churched; between religious and secular.
In fact, after leaving the hospice I entered into parish ministry. I must admit I was taken aback that I faced similar denial and lack of knowledge about end-of-life challenges in the congregation. Surprising if only the religious and faith context of a church community, presumably, would be better able to handle matters of end-of-life with more openness and hope. Gladly, my time at hospice served me well in being able to provide good ministry to our congregational families and members facing end-of-life issues.
Given the reality of our graying culture (and our graying congregations), helping people with end-of-life challenges should be a primary pastoral and spiritual care skill. Members in our congregations face these issues daily. How well prepared are we to minister effectively and compassionately as spiritual guides for the end-of-life experience?
We’re offering the course “In Life and in Death: Helping in End-of-Life Choices,” this fall. This is a practical five-week course for ministers, lay leaders, deacons, Stephen Ministry volunteers, even for families in your congregation. The course will help you understand health issues faced during critical illnesses and end-of-life. It will provide knowledge about concrete issues (choosing cure or comfort, feeding tubes, CPR, DNR, etc.) as well as spiritual and emotional issues during the final stage of life.
I’ve found the most benefit from these online courses is derived when you can gather a group from your church to take it together: your deacons, pastoral staff, spiritual care volunteers, etc. You can enrich the learning experience by meeting together at church to discuss what you are learning together, and determine the ways you and your church can apply what you are learning immediately to minister to those who are, and WILL, face end-of-life challenges.
The course will be led by Hank Dunn, a nationally recognized expert in the field of end-of-life matters, a former chaplain, and the author of the course text.
I hope you’ll join us for this important and practical course, and I hope you’ll invite others in your church or ministry to join you for this journey.
Again, click here to learn more about the In Life and in Death: Helping in End-of-Life Choices course.
(P.S. If you are interested in developing leaders for the older adult ministries in your congregation, check out the Center for Lifelong Learning’s Certificate in Older Adult Ministries.)
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.