The Road to Hospital Chaplaincy

Beryl Knudsen

I am on the road to becoming a hospital chaplain. I started attending SVOTS eight years ago as a half time student. My youngest child was ten, my husband no longer required my help in his business ; I wanted to go back to school. I am the manager of my church's bookstore and my love of books made me curious about the courses at SVOTS. I heard Fr. John Erickson, Dean of the Seminary at the time, speak inspiringly that the mission of SVOTS was to educate lay leadership for the church as well as clergy and I applied to seminary. At my SVOTS interview it was suggested by Dr. Rossi that I consider the Masters of Divinity program. He warned that I would have to take Greek. My response was "bring it on, I'm ready!" I enjoyed Greek, but what really made a deep impression on me was the mandatory experience of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), the training for hospital chaplaincy. It's more challenging than Greek.

CPE is a unique combination of classes, individual mentoring, visits to patients, and growth within a peer group. The supervisor and six students meet regularly to share verbatims, actual conversations between a student and patient (whose name is not disclosed). The verbatim reveals much about the state of the patient, emotionally and spiritually, as well as the CPE student. It is a great arena for strengthening one's faith as well as seeing and discarding unnecessary personal baggage. (Read about CPE.)

I looked forward to the group work we did in CPE but not the hospital visits. This is ironic as I am a registered nurse. I had not worked much in an acute hospital setting and I did not relish the idea of being with very ill patients in rooms with noisy, futuristic medical equipment. Neither illness nor complicated machines are on the list of my favorite things. But Fr. Stephen Belonick, Dean of Students at that time, encouraged me to embrace chaplaincy, saying it was like diving into the water, taking the plunge with God's help. In retrospect this is amusing, since diving is at the top of the list of my least favorite things.

That first year I found my niche working with psychiatric patients, alcoholics and addicts. Then, for a while, I had second thoughts about chaplaincy, and explored the option of a combined social work/Mdiv degree. However, through God's grace, an event happened that guided me to my calling as a chaplain. The hospital five minutes from my house hired its first CPE supervisor. That meant that instead of my having to commute an hour to Yonkers, New Haven, or Hartford three days a week (in addition to SVOTS classes) I could train within my community. The new supervisor had thirty years of experience and was well aware of SVOTS, having had an SVOTS alumnus as his student.

I love CPE at Danbury Hospital. It is constantly a challenge and very fulfilling. I have had the opportunity to work in the intensive care unit, on the behavioral health unit, and in the emergency room as well as regular hospital floors. I have patients who are having minor surgery and patients who are dying. The training I have had through CPE in listening to and being present for the patient (setting aside my own agenda), along with inviting patients to talk about and explore their relationship with God has allowed me to experience many blessings during my visits. Praying for, and with, patients has been a great joy. My education at SVOTS has given me a strong foundation in my Orthodox faith from which I can reach out to Christians and non-Christians alike. In particular, my study of Old and New Testament has grounded me. It has helped my prayer life so that I can be a silent, prayerful, witness. All this has born fruit. While training at Danbury Hospital I was hired as the on call chaplain for evenings, weekends and nights for all non Roman Catholic patients. Currently there is a proposal submitted by the Spiritual Care department to hire me half time starting in July. At that time I will seek to be commissioned by the OCA as an Orthodox hospital chaplain. All this because I like books! Glory to God who sees what we cannot, who knows the needs of all His children!

Beryl Knudsen lives in Danbury CT. She was raised in an observant Jewish home, converted to Christianity at the age of 24, and became Orthodox at age 32.. When not studying at SVOTS or at Danbury Hospital she can be found at home with her husband Joseph, her twenty three year old daughter, Joanna, her eighteen year old daughter, Elizabeth, and almost four year old grandson Gabriel (plus two ferrets and a cat). She is a member of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Bethel CT, a mission of the OCA. She likes road trips and has fully taken advantage of her daughter's college search to "get out of Dodge" and enjoy a change of scenery.