The Presbyterian Association of Homes & Services for the Aging (PAHSA) is a fellowship of senior living organizations that proudly point to their Presbyterian heritage when they describe their origins. PAHSA member organizations strive to exemplify Christian values and fulfill the physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual needs of older adults, so that they may experience the fullest life possible.
Central to this commitment are the chaplains. Senior living chaplaincy is a unique calling, but one that comes with great rewards. PAHSA chaplains consider it a privilege to minister to older adults. Many older adults enter senior living trying to figure out what comes next and asking questions about their legacy and purpose. Chaplains focus on helping people move through a different phase of life. They accompany individuals and their families to find purposeful living through the aging process, including the end of life.
While some chaplains work within a pastoral team, most are in a solo ministry as the only staff member professionally dedicated to the spiritual care of the community. The work is as demanding as any parish ministry.
So where do PAHSA chaplains turn to find support for their unique service?
The PAHSA Chaplains’ Circle is a bi-monthly virtual gathering of senior living chaplains, campus pastors and spiritual care providers. During their meetings, participants share experiences and resources unique to ministry in a senior living context.
The Circle found its beginnings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with the restrictions and protocols of social-distancing, Chaplains found their ministry derailed when their usual practices of leading worship and bible study, visiting and praying with residents came to a complete stop.
In the meantime, senior communities felt like they were under siege as the pandemic took a heavy toll on older adults in congregate care who were ill and dying. Unable to enter the buildings, family members felt disconnected and worried about their loved ones. The overwhelming nature of the pandemic also pushed staff members to their limits.
However, COVID-19 also redefined proximity, enabled by the newfound familiarity with Zoom virtual video conferencing. PAHSA stepped into this space in early 2021, bringing chaplains across the country into fellowship with each other at a critical time, while no one needed to leave their workspace. A virtual community was born. One chaplain called it, “A place to breathe.”
Since then, the circle has continued to meet bi-monthly for an hour. The participants determine the shape of the meeting including format, topics, leadership and more. In the past months, topics have focused on the Church seasons and holidays, end-of-life ministry and rituals, ministering across faith traditions, ministry to staff care professionals and the chaplains’ own self-care. Resources and best practices are shared and the “chat” space is often filled with links and book titles. The atmosphere is conversational and collegial, including an opening “check-in” round to hear how life is going for each person and a closing time of intercessory prayer.
Rev. Will Randolph, chaplain at Longwood at Oakmont, Pennsylvania, a Presbyterian SeniorCare community, is a regular participant. He appreciates and often contributes to the sharing of ideas and resources but, he says, “I’m really here for the camaraderie. It’s valuable to me to spend time with other chaplains who understand our ministry context.” He also appreciates the relationships that he can call on, even between the Circle’s meeting times.
Chaplain Nola Bozeman, who serves at Glenaire in Cary, North Carolina, a Brightspire senior community, agrees, “It’s an opportunity to share sacred time together. Even in the virtual space, we give each other hope, support, laughter, celebrations and tears. It’s just a great opportunity to connect with colleagues and share this special ministry.”
The Chaplain’s Circle meets bi-monthly on Zoom video conference. Chaplains serving in senior living settings are welcome to join, regardless of denominational affiliation. Participation is free but registration is encouraged. To learn more, visit www.pahsa.org.