Penny Driediger, director of Eastern Mennonite Seminary's Clinical Pastoral Education program, stands in front of Sentara RMH Medical Center. This photo was taken as she began her supervisory position with the program in 2010. She still works at the hospital and with EMS. (EMU file photo)

Honoring chaplains during National Pastoral Care Week: CPE Director Penny Driediger on walking with patients and families amidst COVID challenges

In honor of National Pastoral Care / Spiritual Care Week Oct. 24-30, Penny Driediger was asked to share a reflection about her work as chaplain at Sentara RMH Medical Center.

Her article appeared in an internal newsletter and is shared here with permission. Dreidiger is director of Clinical Pastoral Education at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and an ACPE-accredited Educator

To hear her and four of chaplaincy students share more about their experiences from the summer CPE program, visit the seminary’s Facebook page (there is no obligation to join Facebook). EMS chapel services stream each Tuesday at 11 a.m. and an e-chapel reflection is posted each Thursday.

“In light of all the burden on healthcare workers during COVID’s resurgence this fall, our EMS CPE program is providing an important spiritual support service to Virginia hospitals, retirement communities and medical facilities,” said EMS Associate Dean Sarah Bixler. “In some cases, our CPE students provide the only chaplaincy services available; in others, they supplement care offered by existing chaplaincy staff who are often overwhelmed by the needs. This experience, supported by Penny’s expert guidance, is shaping their ministerial formation in profound ways as they practice a ministry of presence during this difficult moment in American history.”

Eastern Mennonite Seminary is unique as one of only eight seminaries in the United States with its own ACPE-accredited CPE program.

On the Chaplain’s Work: by Penny Driediger

CPE is a nationally accredited educational program that trains chaplains and pastors in providing spiritual care to those whom they serve. We have a good partnership and many Chaplain Interns have served at SRMH through our program for 20 years. I have the privilege of walking alongside patients, families, staff and students, promoting healing through spiritual and emotional care as a part of the wonderful care team at SRMH.

My work involves caring for individuals in some of the most distressing and challenging moments of their lives. I am constantly amazed by the resilience, courage and faith that so many exhibit as they face health challenges, pain and loss. I am aware of the importance of connection, of caring – sometimes holding hope for someone when they can’t hope for themselves. I have discovered that joy and sorrow are close companions. Often in the midst of deep sorrow, laughter will make its way to the surface in a way that offers a sense of healing and connection in the midst of the storm.

During the COVID pandemic, my Chaplain role has been challenging. It was very disorienting when we could not visit patients with Covid, knowing the fear and disconnect from loved ones that they were experiencing. We needed to be creative about how to care for patients, family, and staff. Sometimes, my heart has felt broken by the emotional toll that caring has taken on our wonderful staff. When the pandemic began, I felt like I was watching their distress from a distance – unable even to touch them, to give them a hug. Often, we resorted to video chats or phone calls to connect with patients and to connect families to patients. I recall one visit last year, once I was able to enter Covid rooms of those who requested a visit. One local chaplain from a residential home had four different patients in the hospital with Covid. I recall “walking” him around to these patients with a tablet so that they could have a visit with their pastor. Often tears would come as they connected with him and with God through his prayers and care for them. This was sacred work for me.

This past year and a half has touched us all and demanded so much, impacting every aspect of our personal and professional lives. As a chaplain whose role it is to listen and to provide space for another’s story, I have witnessed incredible resilience and courage from those on the front line of this pandemic. Not all experiences are equal; some seem to fare better than others. But there has been wounding, disorientation, sorrow, anger, fear. And there has been hope, love, patient compassion which shines through despite the challenges. I bear witness to their stories, to their distress, to their fortitude to carry on…because they have made a commitment to do so.

Last year during some of the worst days of the pandemic, I wrote a reflection after a visit with a patient. I’m including it here to share a glimpse into the unique role that chaplains play and express gratitude for the opportunity to serve the Sentara RMH community.

The man sat in a chair in the corner as I entered the room. I was covered from head to toe, double masked with N-95, goggles, hairnet, protection from him, from the disease he carried in his body and spread through the air with his labored breathing.

Communication was a barrier as he struggled to hear me unable to see the articulation of my words.

He seemed vulnerable and scared I had heard this to be true from others fear for himself and his wife who he believed was dying. How do I meet him? How do I touch his pain without increasing his feelings of despair and isolation?

The feelings were there: fear, pain, anger, grief. The lived experience was there: isolation, sickness, O2 stats dropping, separated from his loved one. Uncertainty that so many with this disease face will I get better, or will I die with this disease never able to physically be with my family again?

Chaplain before him—representing God? Hope?

The question that he had lived with for his lifetime took shape. “Why does God allow such horrible things to happen? Over and over different articulations of the same question his eyes often pleading with me. And I felt hammered by his words by his crisis that touched so closely to my own questions, my own unknowing. Between despair and a longing for a God who loves, who cares, who has compassion, who heals. No words, no words.

I sat uncomfortably with him trying to convey compassion, hearing his lament, anger, questions. I joined him, “I don’t know.” He searched me with his eyes. Finally, he quieted down with a heavy sigh. He asked me what I hold onto looking for an anchor. I shared brief glimpses because he couldn’t understand everything I said. Of the God I believe in, that I have held to in my own times of despair. The suffering God who also cried out, “God, why have you forsaken me?” The man lowered his eyes and said, “I can’t be forgiven.” I said, “As far as the east is from the west,” God removes our sins from us. I offered grace in my presence, through being a witness to his questions, his grief. I suggested that he could talk to God, as if God were a friend.

He quieted and again looked pleadingly into my eyes the only part of me that he could see. “What do I do, he inquired?” I sensed his openness and desire for a connection with this gracious God. I offered; Can I pray for you?” He heartily said, yes! In my prayer, I declared him a loved child of God. I prayed, grace, forgiveness over his life. I prayed for a balm for his broken spirit. I prayed for his loved one whom he could not touch. When I finished, he said, “When do I pray?” I said, how about now? We connected, holding hands. He squeezed tightly. And he talked to God like a friend.

Discussion on “Honoring chaplains during National Pastoral Care Week: CPE Director Penny Driediger on walking with patients and families amidst COVID challenges

  1. Penny, thank you for sharing so carefully, wisely and vulnerably. I was moved to tears by your ministry. Thank you.

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