Getting Their Internal House in Order: A Day of Conversation Prepares Clergy to Help Congregants Face End of Life Issues

A person in glasses holds their chin in their hand

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Ann B McClenahan, ThD

“End of life issues in many ways is like the North Star of Pastoral care.”

That was the insight Dr. Phillip Mamalakis of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology shared with the 150 people who gathered for the Boston Theological Interreligious Consortium (BTI) Life Long Learning conference “Dying Well: Multi-Religious Conversations”  on April 2nd. BTI represents nine schools training people for the ministry, serving as chaplains, and preparing for academic and other careers.

We were inspired to create our first ever conference of this kind because of a major problem. While 90 percent of Americans think having conversations about what it means to live well until the very end are important, most of us don’t know how to begin them—or wait too long, which can be too late.

Since many people turn to clergy during times of serious illness, clergy must have the training and insight to be able to both encourage congregants to have these conversations with loved ones and support them when they do. However many members of the clergy don’t receive adequate instruction.

The conference brought together people with a wide range of perspectives on the issue – seminary students, faculty, clergy, chaplains, nurses, doctors and other experts in the field. “Our goal was to give attendees information and context about why clergy and chaplains have an important role in end of life care and tools they could be using right away in their settings to start having end of life care conversations,” said one of our key planners,  Reverend Rosemary Lloyd, Advisor to Faith Communities for The Conversation Project

We started with a panel discussion involving clergy of different faiths including Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and Buddhist, to explain the different customs and beliefs regarding death and dying. “When we learn about death, we usually say it is from God that we come and to Him we must return,” said Chaplain Aida Mansoor of Hartford Seminary. The panelists were joined on stage by a biomedical ethicist who brought her unique viewpoint to the discussion. “End of life conversations, breaking bad news, it’s an art,” said Dr. M. Sara Rosenthal, PhD. Of the University of Kentucky. “It takes years to do it well.”

An underlying theme of the discussion was the need for members of the clergy to confront their own feelings about serious illness. “How can you be with someone who is dying if you yourself are recoiling in fear at your own mortality?” asked Chris Berlin, Counselor to Buddhist students and Instructor in Ministry and Pastoral Counseling at the Harvard Divinity School. Dr. Mamalakis agreed. “Approaching death has a lot to do with getting your internal house in order,” he noted.

After the panel discussion ended, we enabled the audience to do that by having them break down into tables of eight people to use the “Hello” Game co-designed by Jethro Heiko. The game encourages people to share their answers to questions about different aspects of serious illness care. For example, one question asked “Who would you ask to help you go to the bathroom?” While some questions provoked laughter and others resulted in tears, the process helped people who had been strangers at the start of the day share something meaningful with each other.

For the third and final session, Rev. Lloyd presented the other major tool people took away from the conference, The Conversation Project’s Conversation Starter Kit, which takes people step by step through the process of having “the conversation” about their preferences for serious illness and end of life care. “This is a gift you are giving yourself and you deserve it, “she told the audience.

When the conference was over the feedback we got was tremendously positive. Participants gave each section of the programming high ratings. They left the event energized and wanting more. Many have asked when the next one will be held.

We learned a tremendous amount in the planning and execution of our first conference on this subject. We received invaluable support and guidance from our co-hosts The Conversation Project and Massachusetts Coalition for Serious Illness Care

If you are planning your own conference  – here are some tips:

  • Don’t shy away from a tough subject – There is an enormous interest in the subject of serious illness and end of life care that is wide spread among a number of different professions and life stages. People were grateful for the chance to discuss it.
  • Don’t over program the event – We could have used more time in the day for people to have  longer conversations and network with each other.
  • Give people something physical to take home – Our participants received the Hello Game and The Conversation Starter Kit to help them continue their work.

Ann B McClenahan, ThD is Executive Director of Boston Theological Interreligious Consortium. McClenahan works with its nine member institutions to build interreligious knowledge and relationships. She received her undergraduate degree from Brown University and an MDiv and ThD in Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School. She also has twenty years of work experience in Marketing and Advertising.

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