From June 22-25, chaplains from across the country gathered in Houston, Texas, for the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) Annual Conference, the first to be held in person since 2019. “After the long break, we were thrilled to be together in person once again,” said Wentworth-Douglass Hospital Palliative Care Chaplain Michele Guest Lowery, MDiv, BCC. “It’s invaluable to be able to connect with other chaplains who uniquely understand the work we do each day.”
The process to prepare for the national conference began more than a year ago and was kicked off by establishing four subcommittees—two of which were led by Mass General Brigham network chaplains.
Michele served as chair of the Plenary Speaker Subcommittee and Sarah Byrne-Martelli, DMin, BCC-PCHAC, Inpatient Chaplain, Division of Palliative Care and Geriatric Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, served as chair of the Education Subcommittee. “After close to 20 years of involvement with APC, including terms on the Board of Directors and the Advocacy Commission, I was pleased and honored to be asked to take a lead in planning this year’s conference,” said Sarah. “My colleague, Rev. Donna Blagdan, BCC, Director of Spiritual Care, Mass General, also joined me on the Education Subcommittee. It has been a great way to learn about new approaches to spiritual care as well as to showcase all of the groundbreaking work we are doing at Mass General.”
From left to right: Donna Blagdan, BCC; Michele Guest Lowery, MDiv, BCC, and Sarah Byrne-Martelli, DMin, BCC-PCHAC
In her position as chair of the Plenary Speaker Subcommittee, Michele helped secure a roster of talented speakers, all focused on this year’s theme: Rediscovering the Art of Chaplaincy. The conference was attended in person by close to 600 chaplains. Moreover, the APC opened plenary sessions on a virtual basis to provide access to as many of their members as possible. In addition to introducing the plenary sessions, Michele also had the honor of offering the conference’s closing prayer.
The APC serves chaplains in all types of health care and human service settings, with over 5,000 members and affiliates, offering interfaith ministry and spiritual care to all persons, while respecting their diverse cultures, identities, abilities, and beliefs.
With more than 40 workshops and posters, the conference offered chaplains an all-encompassing and efficient way to learn about best practices across the country, as they connect with their peers. “We learn from each other and bring new ideas back,” said Sarah, who led several trainings, including an eight-hour preconference workshop for palliative care and hospice advanced certification. “It’s exciting to be a part of continually improving the way we provide palliative care.”
Michele feels that APC advocacy has helped chaplains to be welcomed into more care settings than in years past. Also, the APC has promoted important research on the impact of spiritual care on the patient experience, especially at end of life. “A significant mission of APC, which is also a personal passion for me, is to promote research literacy in general for chaplains,” noted Sarah.
APC Planning Committee Members (from left to right): Spiritual Needs Subcommittee Chair, Walter Spears, DMin, BCC; Conference Chair, Jeffery Murphy, MDiv, BCC; Plenary Subcommittee Chair, Michele Guest Lowery, MDiv, BCC; Education Subcommittee Chair, Sarah Bryne-Martelli, DMin, BCC; and Sponsorship and Volunteers Subcommittee Chair, Michael Lee, MDiv, BCC
“A health crisis—big or small, no matter who you are—can shake you to your core,” said Michele. “It has been shown that a spiritual distress experience can actually affect an individual’s hospital care, sometimes limiting a patient from being able to actively participate in the healing process.
” Often patients are not sure of the role of a hospital chaplain. Michele recalled a patient telling her she did not want “any of that religious stuff.” Michele told her, “It’s your lucky day because I am not a religious chaplain.” After granting Michele a three-minute trial (during which time Michele focused on meaning, purpose, and connection), the patient went on to request a visit from Michele each day.
“I feel successful when I can help a patient engage in a complicated treatment plan,” said Michele. “I also enjoy helping them discover what spiritual and other resources they may have within themselves or available to them. We may practice mindfulness and look for simple sources of joy. We often talk about how their life might be changing due to losses of abilities. With the right support, patients may find resilience, courage and hope. I’ve worked at many organizations but none as phenomenal as Wentworth-Douglass,” said Michele. “As a board-certified chaplain, I feel valued; and I feel proud to be a part of a system that places a priority on quality chaplaincy.”
In her role on the palliative care team, Michele joins daily huddles with physicians, social workers, discharge planners and others to create a fuller picture of the patient’s needs and possibilities. “It’s a privilege to work with the team,” Michele said. “My role is to integrate the patient’s spiritual and cultural values into the treatment plan so that the patient feels profoundly heard, which is one of our most significant needs as humans.”
Sarah echoes those thoughts. “Chaplains focus on listening to patients and families,” she said. “Deeply exploring their personal beliefs can assist in critical decision making. And when chaplains are valued as team members, their unique input improves the whole health care system.” “I love this work,” said Sarah. “Events like the APC conference are nourishing. I’m thankful for the opportunity to re-energize and pleased to know that Mass General Brigham hospitals are national leaders in our field.”
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