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Listening for the Unsaid

...we get referrals for patients who say they don’t believe in God at all, but they want to talk to a chaplain.

April 26, 2021 |

“Whenever I talk about what a chaplain does, I always start out by saying that chaplains work with people of any religious background and no religious background, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe,” says the Rev. Michael Bostian. “Believe it or not, we get referrals for patients who say they don’t believe in God at all, but they want to talk to a chaplain.”

Mike is a pastor in the North Carolina Synod and Director of Pastoral Care at CarolinaEast Medical Center, a 350-bed hospital in New Bern, NC. This September he will mark 30 years in that role, and more pastoral conversations than he can count.

“We talk to patients about any concerns they have, but we’re always especially interested in the impact of their illness on their lives and their sources of inner strength, which include their faith and spirituality,” Mike says. “Ultimately, I’m interested in helping people understand and claim what they do believe about God and God’s faithfulness to them and God’s love for them.”

There are currently 42 rostered ministers in the North Carolina Synod who serve as full or part-time chaplains, pastoral counselors, and clinical educators in a wide variety of settings. These leaders are supported by the synod’s Specialized Pastoral Care Committee which provides counsel, continuing education events, fellowship, and scholarships for those completing units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

“We are very fortunate here in the North Carolina Synod because through the Specialized Pastoral Care Committee, we have a very strong support network and I really feel a part of our synod,” Mike says. “I suppose there are places where you could go into Specialized Pastoral Care and feel isolated. But I’ve never experienced that because I’ve never done this anywhere but North Carolina.”

Mike served 10 years in parish ministry before a CPE residency changed his ministry trajectory. In the parish, he learned to listen for what goes unsaid.

“One of the things I realized is that it was rare for a person to come see me and say, ‘Pastor, I’m having a faith crisis,’” he says. “What people did instead was talk about health problems, or their children, or parents. Then I would ask, ‘What happens when you pray about it?’ and we would get into the issues around their faith, which were often feelings of the absence of God. But people usually start somewhere else.”

That attentiveness to pastoral needs has only increased for Pastor Mike and his staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among hospital staff. Early on when safety protocols were still being established, exposure to the virus was a risk and stress among hospital workers was high.

“We had some serious things where staff got sick because they were exposed to a patient who initially tested negative,” Mike says. “We had one employee who was exposed like that and died, and many of us knew her. So, this has significantly impacted our pastoral care with staff.”

Pastor Phil Tonnesen, assistant to the bishop, says, “During the global pandemic I have heard numerous stories of how those serving in Specialized Pastoral Care calls have been the hands and feet of Christ to those affected by the virus. We are so blessed in the North Carolina Synod to have such gifted ministers serving in non-parish settings.”

After 30 years of helping others claim their inner strength, Mike says his own faith has never been stronger. “My work has certainly challenged my faith, but always in a good way,” he says. “When our faith is challenged, it’s a matter of claiming it and making it our own as opposed to something someone else has taught us. I think that working with people through so many different real-life challenges has helped me, over and over, to clarify my own faith. My faith has continued to grow stronger and more a part of every fiber of my being.”

Did you know that your Mission Support dollars support those serving in Specialized Pastoral Care calls in this synod? Thank you for supporting this critical ministry!

Story Attribution:

Pastor Matt Canniff-Kesecker for the NC Synod

Mike-Bostian

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