Luke Heibel


Reflections of a Clinical Chaplain

Erlanger Supports Pastoral Ministry on the Margins.

By Luke Heibel, Chaplain at Erlanger Health System

Many patients' stories and circumstances have tested my faith in God and my own calling to serve.

There are times when the suffering of those with faith in God and those without it seem, in the heat of trial, to look all too similar. But troublesome doubts are resolved by spectacular glimpses of God's gracious activity in the heart and lives of patients, family and staff, in a way that keeps me excited about this unique work.

Hope, Healing and Humility

Amazing things happen here. The very ill and nearly dead are restored to life. And whether praying with an overwhelmed physician or listening to a nervous, chain-smoking spouse bargain with God outside the ICU waiting room, there is a humbling thrill that comes from being an advocate for hope- even if it can be awkward at times.

Few jobs allow one to be relationally present with people at threshold events, such as accidents, injury, illness and death, like chaplaincy does. In those momentous spaces, where words fail to describe the trails people are going through, it's easier to appreciate the power of a ministry of presence. What do you say to the middle-aged woman who has worked hard and paid taxes her whole life, but is now being discharged in a wheelchair to a homeless shelter? What words will comfort a 35-year-old man who is trading his freedom and pride for dependence on a dialysis machine? In this place, where suffering and loss are commonplace, people grasp for the relief offered by both science and the supernatural.

Expect the Unexpected

On an average day, my colleague Jeremy Lambert and I first meet with the internal medicine residents for morning rounds. Then we will meet with the pastoral care department to hear the morning reports, have a group devotion and evaluate the patient list for the day. Then we begin making our rounds. Most days have predictable structure: make pastoral visits, handle administrative details, collaborate with team members and consult with supervisors. But within that framework, there is a lot of room for surprises and unique challenges.

When I knock on the door of a new patient's room, or even of one who has been there for weeks, I don't know what's in store - it might be cool dismissal or grateful invitation. Regardless, it will involve meaningful engagement with people in painful circumstances. I might be asked to offer prayer for an upcoming surgery, or be called on to hear what can seem like deathbed confessions from people in end-of-life turmoil and despair. My goal is to create space to honor the part of the person we don't see who is struggling with limits, pain and loss.

A Pastor to the Pastor-Less

Because Erlanger does so much indigent care, we see people without financial, family or spiritual support. I am often a pastor the the pastor-less. It is also common to encounter people who are seeking to grow their spiritual lives but don't know where to begin or where to go for help. Integrity demands I offer more than some gimmicky spiritual placebo.

One of the major sources of suffering patients experience in the hospital, beyond their physical pain, is the grief associated with loss and fear about an uncertain future. Listening attentively to patients and communicating that they have been heard can lead to positive health outcomes. Further, identifying obstacles to healthy choices at home, seeking to understand reasons for noncompliance with medications or addressing harmful coping patterns and relationships is part of the healing process that we seek to address. Doing this can ultimately lead to reduced hospital admissions and encourage healthier choices. 

Chaplaincy involves teamwork and collaboration. One of the greatest privileges of working here is the support of so many skilled professionals who love people and care about doing excellent work. As chaplains, this context requires us to be useful to the patient, family and team by addressing spiritual, relational or emotional needs of the person in crisis that might not be on the medical radar. To do this and remain faithful to God in a way that honors my own faith tradition and Christian convictions is the unique challenge of hospital chaplaincy.

Who are Chaplains?

Chaplains are...
  • Professional ministers who typically serve in institutional settings- in hospitals, the military, schools and businesses.
  • Women and men who stand with those suffering, dying and grieving to offer peace and presence.
  • Women and men with advanced theological training, who are ordained and endorsed by their faith communities to serve outside the traditional pastoral roles.
  • People trained in the art of listening and the skill of caring for others from diverse populations- socially, ethnically and spiritually.
  • Those called to the work of compassion- reminding us that God is among us giving hope.

Treating the Whole Patient

Erlanger Health System, in conjunction with the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, has created a pilot initiative to reposition pastoral care from being an ancillary program to being integrated on the front lines of medicine as core members of the clinical care team. This allows chaplains to address the spiritual needs of patients alongside the physical care provided by physicians and other clinical caregivers. The intent is to change the way medicine is delivered by treating the whole person from admission to discharge. The pilot initiative has a variety of core goals, including:

  • To establish a ministry of presence among patients, families and medical staff while respecting diversity and differences.
  • To actively participate in all multidisciplinary patient care meetings, bringing a spiritual focus and perspective to the evaluation and treatment of patients.
  • To quantify the impact of spiritual support by qualitative /quantitative measures.
  • To enhance clinical medical education by showing the value of spiritual care.
  • To define effective and replicable best practices that can be shared with others.
  • To extend spiritual patient care beyond the walls of the health system.


Erlanger is seeking community support to advance the pastoral care pilot project for two years at a total cost of $265,499.

Find out how you can help bring inspiration and encouragement by calling 423-778-6600 or click here to give today.