COPING WITH COVID-19: Hospital Chaplaincy

A Q&A with Jonathan Burke on being a chaplain resident during the coronavirus pandemic
Jonathan Burke

As the Princeton Theological Seminary community concludes another academic year and transitions to the summer months, the COVID-19 crisis continues. The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the face of ministry in many different ways, and community members are offering windows into their day-to-day lives. We hope you find comfort and hope as you read about tips, techniques, and testimonies from members of our campus and alumni community.

A chaplain resident for Capital Health, Jonathan Burke, MDiv ’19, shares what his experience on the frontlines of the pandemic has been like.

Q: What exactly is a chaplain? What is your philosophy with chaplaincy?

A: A chaplain is someone in a non-church setting who offers spiritual and emotional care to people, who most of the time are in crisis. The philosophy I have embraced is the vision of a spiritual midwife. Someone who comes along side another person during their pain and hardship and helps them create meaning and motion in their spiritual life.

Q: Prior to COVID-19, what did a typical day look like? Now, what does a typical day for you look like during this pandemic?

A: Before COVID-19, a typical day involved meeting with patients face to face, responding to codes in the hospital, providing end-of-life counsel and blessings with families and patients, coordinating with priests/religious clergy, meeting with my supervisor to get support, and meeting in groups with fellow chaplains/interns/residents to discuss, process, and critique our style of chaplaincy.

Now, during this pandemic, I typically only still see patients who contact us on non-COVID floors. I practice doorway roundings, which is going to each room on a floor and standing in the doorway to talk with patients. I call patients on COVID floors, and most meetings are over Zoom. We have to take our temperature in order to get into the hospital, we must wear a mask everywhere and limit movement as much as possible, and we practice social distancing to the best of our abilities.

The COVID floors look like a war zone — it's very intense. If I do get called to a COVID floor, it is usually for a pre-death blessing. I will stand outside the patient's door with the proper amount of PPE. At the peak of hospitalizations in April, numerous patients would die every day between the two hospital campuses I work at.

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Q: How has the residency program made adjustments to your training?

A: We are being trained in using new technologies and we have been learning how to lead bereavement groups, especially online. There has been a major shift to focusing primarily on loved ones of the patients, along with the medical staff.

Q: Have you needed to make any adjustments with your own self-care?

A: I have realized that weekend times have become really precious. I try to relax and then create time to rejuvenate my mind – I read and write in my journal. I’ve noticed I'm praying more in the morning and throughout the day as well.

Q: What has been energizing/fueling to you during this time? What have been the hardships?

A: Having a home base that is comfortable is rejuvenating. Reading, journaling, and music have been encouraging. Exercise has been especially helpful to blow off steam. The hardships have been working with people who are extremely anxious – handling their anxieties – whether that’s patients, colleagues, or even family. It’s been difficult not being able to see family and friends. Also, going through the process of grieving the loss of how things used to be. The COVID-19 patients have been especially difficult because their families cannot be with them – they can only stand outside the door for a certain amount of time. Many of these patients die alone besides doctors and nurses. And even non-COVID patients who are sick and dying are also in the same situation.

Q: Is there anything you wish you knew or had experienced going into this pandemic?

A: Honestly, having more experience providing chaplaincy over technology or just being more comfortable using technology would have been good. In addition, you develop certain skills throughout your internship or residency and they don’t transfer over the phone. In certain ways you have to completely re-work how you engage with people.

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Associate Pastor, Faith Lutheran Church, Bismarck, ND

Sylvia Bull, Class of 2015

“My field education placements lifted up my gifts for ordained ministry, and the dual-degree program helped me develop the skills for ministry.”