For more than 30 years, Mark Stayton has served as a volunteer chaplain with Holston Valley Medical Center. As he looks back, he’s grateful for a journey that brought him closer to God and to his parishioners.
My story started in 1981, shortly after I had come to Kingsport to begin a new ministry in music and youth at First Church of God (now known as Kingsport Community Church). In the church was a lady who was the head nurse at then-Holston Valley Community Hospital, Nina Ketron. She, along with other hospital administrators, were interested in starting a volunteer chaplaincy program in the hospital with a lot of support from the area physicians.
As one doctor put it: "I'm tired of leaving my patients on Friday in a good mood toward recovery and coming in on Monday morning to find them in unstable condition, due to some jack-legged preacher using their rooms as their pulpits to condemn them because their sins made them sick."
With a chaplaincy program, there would be greater control of ministerial visits, due to the fact that all ministers would need to register their name with their church's name in order to visit their parishioners. For those patients who had no church affiliation, a chaplain could be requested. In order to be a chaplain, further training was offered those ministers who wanted to serve as volunteer chaplains. The initial training lasted several months (starting in 1981) until the program was implemented in the spring of 1982.
At first, the program (Kingsport Volunteer Chaplaincy Service) was operated by a board of volunteers consisting of chaplains and hospital administrators from all the hospitals in the city at that time. Each volunteer chaplain served one week (24 hours a day) at a time. Since there were several volunteers at that time, the rotation amounted to once every three or four months. However, as soon as the visibility level of having a chaplain on call 24/7 was understood and utilized by the hospital staff, the volunteer chaplains began dropping out due to a time crunch between church ministry and hospital commitment. This also foreshadowed the need for the hospitals to hire their own full-time chaplain.
At first, the KVCS Board initiated a contract relationship with the hospitals in order to bring in our own full-time chaplain as an employee of KVCS. In order to do this, we had to incorporate; thus becoming Kingsport Chaplaincy Service, Inc. This lasted only 18 months, at which point we had to return to relying on volunteers 24/7 again, but with a much smaller pool from which to draw. I can recall having to serve at least one week a month and sometimes two or three weeks a month when other volunteers had vacations or conflicts restricting their service. Within a few years, the hospitals began to realize the need for full-time chaplains within their facilities. Once the spiritual care departments in each hospital were implemented, the KCS took a backseat as an advisory and support team. After several years of doing this, each hospital developed their own advisory and support teams; thus, KCS disbanded/dissolved its incorporation.
Area ministers are still offered to serve as volunteer chaplains as support to the full-time chaplains, because there is no way one or even two chaplains could service both hospitals 24/7/365. I really appreciate the schedule that was developed early-on where we are scheduled to serve one night a month so the full-time chaplains are able to enjoy a full night's rest without having to worry about the needs of the hospital emergencies. Just think, if all the ministers of the city volunteered to serve in this capacity, we would only have to be scheduled two or three times a year.
As to my service in hospital chaplaincy:
Having done hospital visitation and some volunteer chaplaincy before arriving in Kingsport and entering the volunteer chaplaincy program at Holston Valley, I felt that as a minister, one of the primary components of ministry is ministering to and helping all people, whether they were members of my church where I served or not. God calls to minister to all His creation wherever we are.
In the beginning of the volunteer chaplaincy program, we (ministers) wore our work clothes to work (at the office, at meetings at the church and in the community, wherever we went and served), which usually meant wearing a suit. Some still do that, which is fine, but some have developed the sense of meeting those we love and serve as they are - casual and ordinary, because that is how Jesus did it. Well, one night while on call, I went to the ER in my black suit and waited for the family to arrive in the very small family room we had at that time in the ER area.
As soon as the mother of the patient saw me, she said, "Oh, no, is he dead!" Not only did I have to assure her that her son was conscious and being attended by a very capable team of doctors and nurses, but that I was only a team member of the trauma team, and I was there to help comfort and assist with communication. After that, I realized that our (chaplains) appearance and demeanor say a lot upon first impressions to distraught and at times disgruntled family members.
In my 32 years of service, I have seen it all, but am still amazed at how God works in and through the doctors, nurses, hospital staff and chaplains to minister unto these families who are many times at their wits' ends as to knowing what to do or even say.
Once, several years ago, I was in a meeting one evening at church and received a chaplain call. Upon arriving at the hospital, I discovered it was a fatal motor vehicle accident of a prominent person in the community. The family was very appreciative of my response and care for them during this most difficult time in their lives. They couldn't seem to thank me enough. I assured them I was the one who was honored to be of assistance to them at this time. Recently, a young pregnant woman who died from injuries in an ATV accident gave birth to her twin still-born girls in the trauma room. When I arrived at the hospital, I was ushered to where they were placing these little girls in their father's arms. Those little angels looked as if they were just sleeping until time to wake to be fed. Upon receiving the information of their condition, my heart broke within me, and my spirit reached out to this distraught father and all those nurses in that room as I could see they were struggling, too, with what had just happened.
Even through the tragedies of death of infants, toddlers, children, teenagers, mothers, fathers, relatives, grandparents and friends, I have seen and experienced the peace and work of God in these families' lives. From gunshot wounds to stabbings to all types of vehicle accidents to terminally ill diseases, God still ministers unto these families through those that allow Him to use them to do so.
Not all chaplain calls end in death, because many start out very tragic but end in hope and healing, although at times through long recovery and rehabilitation processes. Of course, I don't know why God allows certain things to happen, trust and faith exercise their benefits in my life, so I may minister to families and hospital staff during these times. I may not know now, but I trust God to one day fulfill His promise that when we see Him face-to-face, He will explain all things to our understanding.
Yes, chaplaincy is tough at times, even our own family members may have to endure hearing the beeper go off in the late hours of the night and/or early hours of the morning. But, all-in-all, it is worth it! Not because of the thanks and appreciation of families, staff and at the annual Appreciation Banquet given by the spiritual care department, but because in your own spirit, God reveals to you that He approves of what you are doing on His behalf: "…when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!" (Matthew 25:40).
As the songwriters, Bill and Gloria Gaither, put it their song, "The Family of God": "From rags unto riches, from the weak to the strong; I'm not worthy to be here, But praise God I belong!" I've ministered unto the powerful and powerless; I may not know exactly what to do or how to do it, but praise God, He has given me the ministry to do it. And what He gives us to do, He enables and equips us to do it for His honor and glory. That's why I am still doing volunteer hospital chaplaincy today! Won't you join me?
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