Chaplaincy Without Borders

October 13, 2016
Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Shaundra Cunningham, and Eric Dawson
HDS alums Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Shaundra Cunningham, and Eric Dawson / Courtesy photo

The NFL has chaplains. Most universities do, too. The military, U.S. Congress, and hospitals across the country have access to chaplaincy resources, but not social change leaders. Not typically anyway.

But over the last several years, three Harvard Divinity School alums have been working to change that by partnering with Echoing Green, an early stage investor in global change leaders.

As chaplains to Echoing Green fellows, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Eric Dawson, and Shaundra Cunningham—all MDiv ’10—provide spiritual care to a community of leaders working across the globe on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to HIV/AIDS prevention to microfinance to climate change. The three work to address the spiritual needs of leaders as well as the spiritual dimensions of being on the frontlines of the world’s problems.

“I lost a young person I was close to in a shooting,” Dawson said. “I realized there was nothing I could do to fix his sister’s grief. You can’t fix a dead 17 year old. All you can do is bear witness to the pain. I went into ministry to learn how to be with people facing problems and moments you can’t fix.”

It was during their time at HDS and in the years immediately following that the three learned to be chaplains. In Boston-area and South Carolina hospitals, they would sit with families and patients as they were told of devastating diagnoses, said goodbye to loved ones, or simply managed the daily inconveniences of hospital life.

In their coursework at HDS, they studied the history of chaplaincy and the theological and ethical aspects of providing pastoral care in secular settings.

“When we landed at HDS, we had already spent the first chapters of our professional lives working in the social change sector,” said Beach-Ferrara. “It was, in part, the suffering and crises we witnessed in our past work that compelled us to seek training as ministers.

But they had a problem. Where they saw possibility, others did not.

In secular spaces, when they talked about the spirit and about faith, an awkward silence would settle in, and sometimes, even a palpable discomfort. As they quickly found, proposing spiritual care for social change leaders was met with responses ranging from skepticism to suspicion: Why would you do that? Aren’t you really just trying to proselytize? That will never work.

But in Echoing Green, they found a willing partner to explore these questions.

Through an independent study their third year, Dawson and Beach-Ferrara launched a pilot with Echoing Green to test their hunch that there was both a need and a demand for chaplaincy services for social change leaders. That initial pilot has since expanded into an ongoing service that is offered to Echoing Green fellows during the two-year period of their fellowship and beyond. Cunningham joined their team in 2014.

Available research—most of it about the healthcare sector—shows that chaplaincy positively impacts metrics such as patient satisfaction and length of hospital stay, and makes a particular difference during acute situations like end-of-life care. In corporate settings, chaplaincy has been shown to improve employee morale.

“Chaplaincy is about care of the spirit and soul,” Dawson explained. “It is about engaging with someone’s interior life and their ultimate questions. The more we saw chaplaincy in action—from helping a university community respond to a crisis to bedside conversations in an ICU—the more we believed that it offered a way to address spiritual issues in social change work. To us, the intersection of chaplaincy and social change work seemed like an exciting new frontier, another place to support and strengthen social entrepreneurs.”

As their work with Echoing Green grew, it quickly became apparent that, while models and research from healthcare, educational, and corporate settings would be helpful, they would need to create a pastoral care model tailored to the specific community they were serving.

During the past seven years, they have developed a pastoral care model tailored to the Echoing Green community, which is secular, global, culturally diverse, and often interacts virtually. They tried a lot of different language to introduce chaplaincy; some gained traction while others flopped. They learned that describing their work using the concept of “care” translated for almost everyone—someone may have never heard of chaplaincy, but they know what it means to be cared for.

They have now worked with more than 260 fellows and a growing number of the more than 700 alumni that are part of Echoing Green’s global network.

Cunningham shared: “Each fellow takes seriously the mandate of Howard Thurman to find ‘…what makes you come alive, and go do that.’ In the midst of their striving, we function like a trio of jazz theologians, reminding them to slow down, check their rhythm, syncopate, modulate, and tend to matters of the heart.”

The range of pastoral issues they’ve worked with include: going through divorces, grieving the death of a loved one, feeling undone working in broken systems, or feeling lonely thousands of miles from home. They’ve also walked with fellows as they’ve managed team dynamics, wrestled with ethical decisions around funding, and adjusted to rapid growth and expectations.

Their work now focuses on a few main services. At Echoing Green’s semi-annual conferences, they offer individual pastoral sessions as well as workshops on grief and loss and building healthy relationships. Additionally, throughout the year, they do quarterly email outreach to fellows. This digital rounding, which is similar to the “door knock rounding” that chaplains do on hospital units—is a form of “light touch” outreach. They send a simple note to say they are thinking about the fellows, would love to connect, but it’s OK, too, if the fellows hit the delete button.

The heart of their pastoral work takes place in individual sessions, which they provide either in person, via Skype, or over the phone. Some fellows utilize chaplaincy on a regular basis or have multiple sessions during a short period of time. Some, however, engage with the chaplains only once or twice over the course of their two-year fellowship. Others not at all. But the feedback that fellows share with Echoing Green shows they are grateful for the option.

The chaplains are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to issues in as close-to-real time as possible. It’s a reminder to the people they serve that, although they may feel alone, someone who cares is always out there for them.

—Jonathan Beasley

Rev. Eric Dawson is Unitarian Universalist minister and CEO of Peace First.

Rev. Shaundra Cunningham is a Baptist minister and a staff chaplain at Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is a United Church of Christ minister and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.