The Revd Joanna Percival, lead chaplain at Guildford’s Royal Surrey County Hospital, answers some questions about the valuable role that she and her team perform for patients and their families.
What does a normal day look like for a hospital chaplain?
The role of chaplain is so varied that there’s very rarely a ‘normal’ day, but the core activity is visiting patients and their families, supporting them as they deal with illness and pain and the emotions that come with that, whether it is anger, grief, depression, uncertainty or any of the myriad of feelings that can arise. It can be joy too – not long ago a new father came to share his happy news!
Much of what we do is about listening, and about being alongside people as they process what is happening to them or a loved one. Being in hospital and therefore away from one’s everyday life often brings up things that have been waiting for our attention. We believe that it is not what we are doing that counts, but what we are being – the quality of our presence and support.
In many ways, chaplains are part of the hospital’s multi-disciplinary team, who look after our patients holistically, just like physios, nutritionists look after other aspects of healthcare. We are able to give patients more time than perhaps doctors and nurses can in their busy schedules, and our referrals to visit people come from staff as well as family, friends and churches. It’s great that the whole staff team see the value in what we do.
The chaplaincy team takes on other roles within the hospital too – such as assisting doctors to teach the medical students about making ethical decisions and our assistant chaplain, Heather Wilson, attends the hospital Dementia Carers Café each month to listen and support. It’s all very integrated.
What part does faith play in the role of chaplain?
Although as a team we represent the Anglican (myself), Baptist (Heather) and Methodist (Allan Taylor) denominations, chaplaincy transcends religion in caring for the whole person. We are here for people of all faiths and those without faith and those with their own brand of faith. If families need a faith representative from Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Universalist, Pagan, Humanist and Spiritualist faiths, we are able to contact someone to visit.
So our Spiritual Care Centre (the Chapel) is a space for Muslims and Christians to pray as well as for other forms of worship that service the needs of the hospital. Staff and visitors come to enjoy the peace and quiet.
The important thing is not to push our faith on people. We minister through attention, listening and kindness – we are being Jesus, not talking about him and we have no agenda to convert. If we are asked to pray, of course we do, and we may tentatively suggest it. Being in relationship builds trust and allows us to come alongside people in a way that is most helpful to them. God does the rest.
What is your background? What path led you to this role?
I grew up in Stoke D’Abernon and attended church there as a child. Like many, I lost some enthusiasm during my teenage years after I was confirmed. However, I became a regular church goer again in my late 20s when I began to seek meaning in my life again. Soon after moving to California after I found a church that emphasised the inner spiritual journey that unfolds in the Bible and I was hooked! I decided to switch from my HR career towards ministry after a year of working with homeless and runaway youth in New York City. After two theology degrees, I was ordained in 1994, carrying out my curacy back in the UK at St Andrew’s Cobham and then moving to All Saints in Weston Green in 2002 as the incumbent.
In 2000 my brother Tim died at the Princess Alice Hospice. After we got home I was amazed to find out that all of my family members had visited the hospice’s chaplain and had felt it to be of great benefit, even those who are non-Christians. I have also seen the work of a chaplain from a patient’s perspective, so I know what a value they are. I think all these experiences lodged a seed in my mind and in 2008 I became chaplain at Southampton General Hospital. I took up my post at the Royal Surrey in February 2016.
If people would like to get involved, what can they do to support you?
First and foremost, people can volunteer as lay members of the chaplaincy team – we always need more! It’s a really rewarding role that basically entails spending time with people, listening to them, without trying to convert anyone. The commitment is a regular three hours per week. Full training is given, so no experience is necessary. We are starting a new course in the autumn – please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to hear more. We warmly welcome your prayers for our team.