Care for the Spirit

by Jan 4, 2019South Brunswick

The nondenominational chaplaincy program at Novant Health completes a fully rounded, whole-person medical approach.

If you’ve ever gone to a health fair, you likely brought home a bag of trinkets, including a foam-rubber ball with directions to squeeze and breathe, to alleviate stress. The benefits of tensing and releasing the muscles in sync with breathing are ancient secrets of Eastern and Western spiritualism. Yogis, Buddhists and even the early Christian monks extolled the benefits of these acts in meditation, not only to prevent illness, but also to encourage healing and union with the Creator. The idea is that for one to be physically well, one must also strive to be mentally and spiritually sound.    

Over the centuries, a strictly medical approach to healing has evolved into a more interdisciplinary avenue, which includes spiritual care. According to the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc., Clinical Pastoral Education was born in the United States in the mid-1920s, when the Rev. Anton T. Boisen became the hospital chaplain at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts. Today, the dividing walls between spirituality and medicine continue to crumble, and hospitals throughout the nation are creating chaplaincy programs for the benefit of their patients. Such is the case at all 15 Novant Health hospitals in North Carolina, including the Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, according to the hospital spokesperson, Amy Myers.

Chaplaincy in Brunswick County         

“Whole person care” actually started at the old county-owned Brunswick Hospital some 40 years ago, says Fran Salone-Pelletier, the volunteer lead chaplain for today’s Brunswick Medical Center. It began with loosely knit visitations by local clergy, she says, and then her husband, Jean Pelletier, with other volunteers, began to formalize it in the mid-to-late 1980s.          

Salone-Pelletier says that around 1990 the hospital bolstered the program by putting a paid staff member in charge of it. Although the employee was not a chaplain and had no experience in pastoral care, a core of more than a dozen volunteer chaplains formed, and little by little, the group was able to develop bylaws and a mutual understanding on how best to serve patients.       

The next step was to bring aboard a liaison for the hospital staff. Salone-Pelletier had two years of experience in pastoral counseling in a master’s degree program, so the group hired her, providing a small stipend. She became the lead volunteer chaplain and maintains that title to this day. There has been an essential change in the hospital staff position, though. Recognizing the importance of the program and the position, Novant hired Deborah Lannon, a full-time, board-certified chaplain for the Brunswick facility, in 2016.

Goals of Chaplaincy

Salone-Pelletier and Lannon say the goals of the chaplaincy program are essentially the same today as they were when it first organized. They are to provide pastoral care for patients, families and hospital staff. Presence and listening are important qualities volunteer chaplains must have, so they can provide spiritual and emotional support such as prayer, scripture and counseling for people of all faiths, for those who do not practice a particular faith and others who have doubts or do not believe in a higher power.      

Lannon is an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada, where she served in congregations across that nation for 30 years. Her portfolio includes pastoral spiritual care. Following her retirement in Canada, she returned to her native United States and undertook additional chaplaincy training in Burlington, North Carolina, and a residency at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. After 2,000 service hours beyond her residency, and demonstrated competencies over 31 years, she became a board-certified chaplain.

That said, Lannon asserts that the Novant chaplaincy program is not clergy oriented and is opposed to evangelism and religious recruitment. It’s about serving the emotional and spiritual needs of people who are hurting, she says. In the midst of chaos, Lannon says, the chaplains provide a pleasingly peaceful and serene presence. She notes that a chaplaincy program is also not about religion, although the chaplains are sensitive to the particular religious needs people have.

She says it’s about spiritual care, which she defines as “the things that give our lives meaning.” In that sense, she believes even people who do not believe in the concept of a Creator are spiritual. The chaplains often delve into what gives their patients’ lives meaning. They help patients draw upon those elements, so they can employ their inner strength to carry on when they are sick, in pain, anxious or worried. “It’s about meeting the patients where they are,” Lannon says. “Sometimes just sitting in silence and being there for someone is more powerful than any advice.”

A Duty for Caring

There are currently 14 volunteer chaplains at Novant; some of them are ordained ministers or deacons, while others are simply committed to ministry and open to serving people of various faith traditions and backgrounds. They are men and women of various faiths who represent the hospital, and not their denominations, Lannon says. They are in it for the patients and not for themselves.

“We select them through a double interview process, a background check and two levels of hospital training,” Lannon says. “They must have a duty for caring and understand we must do no harm. And in our situation, proselytizing can do harm.” Salone-Pelletier adds that it isn’t so much how many courses one has taken or how many CPE units one has, but their level of openness, communication and desire to help others.     


Salone-Pelletier recalls past emergencies to which the volunteer chaplains had responded, such as a house fire that killed a number of college students during spring break. It’s still fresh in her mind how she sped behind the emergency vehicles with hazard lights blinking to arrive at the hospital at the same time as the patients. Her point is that there is much more to chaplaincy than visitations and emergencies, and she credits Lannon with bringing the local chaplaincy program to a much higher level.      

“Deb has the background and abilities we were lacking,” Salone-Pelletier says, citing helping people with advance directives, an understanding of medical ethics, dealing with very sensitive issues such as end-of-life and palliative care, goals for post-hospital medical care, complex family dynamics (including who should speak for the patient), pediatric fatalities, mass casualties and more.

“One of my goals is to continue to educate staff here to call me right away when they are confronted with complex issues and when there are opportunities for spiritual care to provide support,” Lannon says. “We are evolving to the point where hospital staff and volunteers are referring patients to the spiritual care office when they spot a need.” She also instructs the volunteer chaplains how to handle sensitive issues and tells them to contact her when they become too complicated for them to handle. The volunteer chaplains also meet monthly for ongoing training.      

Myers says Brunswick Medical Center was the final Novant hospital to bring a professional chaplain aboard, but the local hospital had evolved to the point where it was important. The state’s joint hospital commission has recognized that every patient should have access to spiritual care if they request it, and Lannon was able to come aboard an already existing and robust volunteer program to guide it toward the future.

“We need both volunteer and professional,” she says, and of her staff she says “you couldn’t ask for better.” She says if a patient is in the hospital two days or more, they likely have a chance to meet with a chaplain. The chaplains knock on doors every day and ask patients if they would like a visit. People also can proactively sign up to see a chaplain when they are admitted as inpatients. Salone-Pelletier adds that very few patients refuse a request to meet with a chaplain.

Chaplaincy Measured          

Is a spiritual care program really necessary? Novant’s patient satisfaction and quality surveys do not specify departments, but ask for an overall sense of patients’ experiences, Myers says. The clinical realm includes medical, case management, chaplain services, environmental services, dietary and the other legs of the hospital stool. Patients need them all. If you take one away, it affects the others, and the patients’ attitudes. “We need them all to do what is right and remarkable for our patients,” Myers says.     

But Lannon says studies show that chaplain involvement reduces the cost of the stay for patients because it aids their healing process, enabling them to go home earlier.

The Future

What is next for spiritual care at Brunswick Medical Center? Lannon says that while there is some diversity among the volunteer chaplains today, she would like the program to mirror the diversity of our nation.           

She also says the hospital chapel tries to embrace the major organized religions, but there are so many of them. Currently, she decorates the chapel for Christian and Jewish holidays and for Kwanzaa. It is a safe and quiet place to sit and meditate on a regular basis, and it includes a prayer request book, pertinent literature, a piano and comfortable seating. Some patients ask to be married while in the hospital, and some of the chaplains may legally perform a ceremony.


Are You Called to Serve?

Lannon encourages others in the community who feel a calling to become part of the hospital chaplaincy program to contact her. She can be reached by calling the hospital at (910) 721-1000 and asking to speak with her. Most chaplains serve one or two days monthly. They spend two to four hours visiting patients and are then on call for the remainder of their 24-hour shift, in case of emergency.

All Photos by Ed Beckley

Photo named David Morris: Volunteer Chaplain David Morris said, “I find it very humbling listening to folks who are in pain, and just hearing the courage that comes through their brokenness. I go away with a more grateful heart than I walked in with, and more appreciative of the little moments that make up a day.”

Photo named Jonathan Horne: Patient Jonathan Horne survived a bad car accident in 2005, and has had multiple surgeries and inpatient visits at Brunswick Medical Center over the past 13 years. “I’m spiritual. I’m in church. I believe in prayer,” he said. “When my pastor is unable to visit, the chaplains here have filled that hole. They talk to me, and relate to me. They comfort my worries and anxiety. I always get 110 percent from them– always a kind, respectful word. They have been able to do that for me through prayer, reading scripture and just providing one-on-one moral support.”

Photo named Lannon_Salone-Pelletier: Lead Volunteer Chaplain Fran Salone-Pelletier, left, and  Brunswick Medical Center Full-Time, Board-Certified Chaplain Deborah Lannon are an effective and inspiring team, educating and guiding 14 volunteer chaplains who meet the visitation and emergency needs of patients 365 days a year, 24 hours a day

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