Lesson #6: Why Do Pastors Resist Something Soooo Good? (Part 1)

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Lesson #6 has to do with the resistance to Support Teams that I’ve encountered among pastors and, indeed, it comes in two parts. Here’s Part One and it’s a heart-felt sympathetic description of why one encounters resistance. There’s a good reason for it. Part Two will come next Wednesday (March 9, 2016), and it’ll be a little more prescriptive.

Ever since I arrived in Birmingham and began working here at UAB, I’ve had this developing dream. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a network of churches around the region, in metropolitan Birmingham as well as in the surrounding counties, where we had a cadre of coaches in partnership with our Department of Pastoral Care trained to launch support teams for discharged patients coming into their communities? After all, I’ve reasoned, it’s in the DNA of congregations to visit the sick, embrace the disenfranchised, and nurture community. A network of coaches in partner churches actively supporting discharged patients could make a huge contribution to the kind of environment necessary for healing and wholeness. Such a network could even prevent a number of persons from being readmitted to the hospital.

Naturally, this has led me to talk with dozens of pastors. As a former senior pastor, myself, with 26 years of congregational experience, I anticipated some resistance, and indeed I’ve encountered it, and even more than understanding it, I identify with it completely.

You see, if you’re a pastor you’re compelled to live out some basic duties which define the profession and to which you know you must devote quality time. The result? Simply preparing Bible studies, planning worship, doing the research and reflection necessary to craft a sermon every week, writing the sermon, visiting folks hospitalized and homebound parishoners, doing pastoral counseling, and lubricating the institutional infrastructure constitute more than a full time job.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

And then, as if that weren’t enough to deal with, before you’ve pastored a given church for more than a week, you start getting calls, emails, or brochures from well meaning individuals or organizations announcing that they have a ministry, program, or offering that will solve all your pastoral and congregational problems. I got them every day of my 26 year ministry as a senior pastor. Here’s an organization that does marriage enrichment in order to solve your church’s divorce problem. There’s an organization that offers clever financial planning that’ll heal all your budgetary problems. And yonder is a fine, committed and “godly” cadre of experienced pastors who’ll teach you how to overcome your church’s lack-of-growth problem. Believe me – these are a tiny fraction of stuff I’d get every week, almost every day. You know what? The vast bulk of that material immediately got deleted or thrown in the trash without me even bothering to read them. One pastor with whom I met just this week (March 1, 2016) told me that he simply does not take sales calls.

And then – and THEN – there were those activists who had problems they wanted ME to solve, by means of my church. These would be on behalf of human trafficking, or race relations, or abortion, or voting for God’s candidate, or world hunger day, or homeless intervention. That list was even longer than the solve-your-church-problems list, and many of the issues were worthy. At first, I felt terrible about throwing away brochures with pictures of hungry children, for example, but honestly, we felt like we were already doing everything we were able to do on a number of fronts. I knew there were only so many causes I could promote without completely diluting the congregational focus. If we heeded every appeal that came across my desk, we’d be like Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when he told Gandalf that he felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped across too much bread.”

I’m acutely aware of this when I speak to pastors about our Support Team Network. I know that ideally, when fully deployed in the congregation, a well developed Support Team strategy will help lift pastoral burdens, because it spreads the care around, activates the talents of a wide variety of church members, and can prevent folks from “falling through the cracks.” But when I shove a Support Team brochure in the face of an already overwhelmed, busy pastor, they feel like swatting it away. I understand this.

So, what to do? Well, here it is again: nothing works for long without the growth of a trusting relationship, and reducing the kind of resistance I’ve described above is no exception. Next week, I’ll offer a few insights that have emerged for me regarding successful partnering.

Lesson #5: The Homeostasis Bug-a-Boo

The author (that's Drexel on the right in the red shirt) with his step-family-to-be.

The author (that’s Drexel on the right in the red shirt) with his step-family-to-be.

I was a naive Ph.D. student when I first encountered the concept of family systems. Maybe it was an indicator of my immaturity regarding my own family dynamics that I firmly resisted learning about the concept. I much more liked the notion of dealing with people as individuals, talking to them about what they’d done in their past, dreaming about the future, and offering the wisdom I gleaned from books and stored in my head. I had a hunch that dealing with the reality of families and their systems would involve a lot of messy work. Dealing with ideas in my head and talking about them was so much cleaner!

Lo and behold, I learned that no matter how wise my advice seemed in the individual counseling hour, no matter how cool the ideas were that we discussed, whatever clients had acknowledged when talking with me got profoundly altered, if not completely dismissed, when they got back with their families. Grudgingly I came to realize that when an individual came into my office, ghosts walked in with them. I HAD to acknowledge how profoundly their family systems affected their interactions with me, both in the counseling hour and otherwise.

Family dynamics include all kinds of great history, such as this time a few years back after my daughter, Melissa, directed a play at Radford University.

Family dynamics include all kinds of great history, such as this time a few years back after my daughter, Melissa, directed a play at Radford University.

This dynamic plays with special strength when one proposes a support team to a patient. By definition, this proposes doing some engineering to the system as it exists, and if the system doesn’t have a custom of incorporating extra-familial forces, the persons may politely refuse to cooperate. You see, families want to maintain – here’s the word – homeostasis. They want things to stay the way they’re used to them because that reduces their level of anxiety.

Murray Bowen and Virginia Satir were the first to fully describe this dynamic and scores of therapists have added to this particular body of knowledge. Basically, “homeostasis” refers to a family’s desire for balance and control such that the family can maintain the customary way the family interacts in order to handle challenges and adjust to changes. When an illness occurs, anxiety increases and most families move as quickly as possible to restore their normality as it was before the illness, which will lower their anxiety. Families reflexively apply their customary means of problem solving on the new situation. For families that have maintained a more independent posture relative to extra-familial relationships, the offer of a chaplain to organize a support team introduces the idea of another change, and subsequently raises the family’s anxiety level.  The offer, which the chaplain meant as a kind invitation, instead feels more like a threat.  Even if the chaplain or care-giver can compile a list of objective data that indicate a need for a support team, those factors remain subject to the family’s customs.

Some families, as a component of their customs, include more permeable boundaries. In such cases, the offer of a support team results in an invitation to be one more part of their system, which already includes extra-familial relationships.

In all cases, whether or not a family accepts a support team depends upon the nature of that family’s sense of homeostasis. It will behove the chaplain to spend some time discerning the character of a particular family’s dynamics. When the chaplain has a non-judgmental understanding of a family’s unique style of relating – how they lower their anxiety – then he or she can fashion an approach toward offering the nurturance of a support team.

At this point, gaining the acceptance of a support team becomes more art than science. The chaplain or care giver needs to customize the manner in which they educate families as to the need. Some families see the need for a team straight away and immediately begin to adjust to the presence of an organized regimen of friends and family showing up. Others require more gently applied education so that they arrive at the conclusion that the presence of a support team only strengthens their system in a healthy manner. Again, the level of trust developed between the chaplain and the family plays a crucial role in how a family hears the chaplain (see Lesson #4).

In all cases, families that eventually accept support teams recognize the presence of the team as a sign of strength, wisdom, and health, not as a judgment on their customary manner of doing things, but a means to lower their anxiety.

Ultimately, each family differs to some degree from other families.  What feels right to one family won’t correspond exactly to what feels right with another.  There isn’t a template beyond being what Ed Friedman called “a non-anxious presence” who listens with as little pre-judgment as possible.  What I had a hunch about in graduate school some 30 years ago holds true: it’s a messy process.

Trust: We’re Fellow Travelers

In “Viva la Resistance,” I described various shades of resistance I’ve encountered over the last two years in my work with Support Teams. As I said at the conclusion of that post, trust alone stands as the best way to overcome resistance.

We're fellow travelers, showing other thirsty travelers where we've found water. (Photo by DR)

We’re fellow travelers, showing other thirsty travelers where we’ve found water. (Photo by DR)

In fact, any effort to nurture a loving and supportive community – which is what we’re up to with Support Teams – involves trust. The Oxford Dictionary defines “trust” as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” Indeed, all chaplains (or coaches) want to convey competence and reliability when they converse with a patient and family. They want the patient and family to sense that the chaplain only has the best interest of the patient and family at heart. If patients and families don’t believe this is true for the chaplain they’ve encountered, they certainly won’t invite the chaplain to interact with their family system.

In my experience, however, the kind of trust we value involves mutual vulnerability. It’s not enough for a patient to acknowledge a chaplain’s (or a coach’s) credentials, training, and competence. When you trust someone, at least to some degree, you’re willing to open up more sensitive regions of your life, confident that the person to whom you’ve given your trust will not do you damage in any way.

This kind of relationship rarely develops quickly. Indeed, it takes a bit of time investment and patience to go from not knowing someone to having the permission to interact in a substantial way with the dynamics of the person’s more immediate system of family and friends.

Henri Nouwen (1932-96)

Henri Nouwen (1932-96)

But perhaps the greatest asset one possesses in establishing trust comes from what Henri Nouwen called, “the wounded healer.” When we learn to share out of our own brokenness and convey our own self-assurance that our short-comings are not reasons to be ashamed, we invite others to open up more to the Grace that undergirds every process of creating healing community. I think trust will grow when the people we serve sense that we, too, have hit bumps in life and that we are fellow travelers, showing other thirsty travelers where we’ve found water.

“Viva la Resistance” . . . or Not!!

Even though I think Support Teams are fantastic, frequently the very people whom I perceive as needing a team the most nevertheless resist having a team organized. Consequently, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the various shades of resistance I’ve encountered over the last couple of years. In the third of my “Ten Lessons Learned” series, here are five of the resistance dynamics I’ve noticed.

  1. DSC_0254Many people resist the idea of a support team because they simply don’t want someone they do not know asking too many questions about their family members’ habits and customs. In other words, sometimes when I start talking about Support Teams, I come off as a nosy trespasser. “Who IS this guy, and what gives him the right to ask these kinds of questions?  HE doesn’t know us!”
  2. Some people, in one way or another, make it clear that they like their family just the way it is. When someone in the hospital suggests that they need “help” in putting together support, it sounds like a negative judgment to them. They don’t like to think that someone’s thinking of THEM as emotionally needy, or in need of counsel to improve their family or social system. Their pride throws up a barrier.
  3. Some folks feel exactly the opposite of #2 above. They’re ashamed of the dynamics in their family system and don’t want their “dirty laundry” exposed to strangers. Or some folks don’t want people coming into their homes and seeing disorder, or filth, or junk lying around everywhere. They may actually wish for a team, but shame erects a barrier.
  4. Frequently, people will resist a support team because they don’t want to “impose on anyone.” I’d need more space to elaborate all the possible roots of this particular weed, but whereas #3 above has to do with shame, this has to do with guilt. People don’t want to feel like they owe anybody anything, so they take a pass on having a Support Team launched for them. I think that this particular dynamic relates directly to the next point. Feeling “obliged” to someone flies in the face of the ideal of being able to handle your challenges yourself. This means that . . .
  5. . . . many people do not want to appear like they need anything, even when they do. This seems to me to go right to the heart of one of our culture’s most cherished myths.  In Western society we live with a deeply engrained cultural ideal of the rugged individual. It makes a positive statement, in our culture, when a person can confront challenges without needing help from anyone. On the other hand, it’s a less positive statement when someone cannot face challenges without aid from others. Stated starkly, an independent person is better than a dependent person. Consequently, to accept the support of a team of volunteers is like admitting that one is a lesser kind of person.  (I’ve written about this twice now under the rubric “Community as Medicine.”)

Other forms of resistance crop up, too, but these five seem to me to be the most frequent and the most effective in short circuiting the team launch process. In the next post, I’ll reflect on what I’ve learned about addressing resistance. In a word, it has to do with trust. More on that next time.

“Community is Medicine”

Here’s a second lesson I’ve learned over the last two years.

DSC_0069-1What if I were to tell you that you have a powerful medicine at your disposal? This medicine has the capacity to help heal you or someone you love, make the process of facing the illness easier, and make you or your loved one stronger, if not physically, then certainly in mind and spirit. Additionally, it won’t cost anything but time and an adjustment in thinking. Wouldn’t you want to use that medicine?

Well, that medicine is community. Notice that I didn’t use quotation marks in referring to community as medicine. That’s because the positive health benefits of an intentional, caring community of people surrounding a person has verifiable medicinal effect.

Mark Hyman, MD, Leader, The Institute for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

Mark Hyman, MD, Leader, The Institute for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

That’s not just a flowery flight of pastoral speech. In the words of Dr. Mark Hyman, a physician who leads the Institute for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in a recent podcast on NPR’s “On Being,” he used the very words: “community is medicine.” Dr. Hyman’s insight into the power of community dovetails very well with the findings of a team of researchers from Brigham Young University’s Department of Psychology. In March, 2015, these researchers published a meta-analysis which concluded – in their words – that loneliness and social isolation will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless “action is taken.” In fact, after they surveyed over 70 research projects on the subject, they warned that loneliness is potentially more deadly than grades 2 and 3 obesity. In other words, the BYU researchers have stated the counterpoint to Dr. Hyman’s term: lack of community is disease.

Most of us in health care already know this. Health involves a whole world beyond the hospital or medical clinic. Notice, though, that I don’t suggest that “community” is just any conglomeration of a number of people. As I’ve been learning in my studies on loneliness, one can be “lonely in a crowd.” A healing community is a group of people who are focused, intentional, and coordinated in their efforts to support one another.

Indeed, on our website we define a Support Team as a group of volunteers who use a coordinated team approach to meet practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns of a person with a health care need in order to make the person’s recovery easier and less lonely. Using their particular gifts in caring for that person, they also care for that person’s family and/or care-givers.  The volunteers who comprise a support team work together to offer intentional support to a person with healthcare concerns.

I’ve learned that the vast majority of folks who learn of this effort like it. As we go deeper in exploring the potential of Support Teams, we discover that we’re really talking about nurturing community in a process of strengthening the ties that already exist in a person’s system of relationships. By teaching, coordinating, and organizing the people a person knows, each experiences a caring community. Cooperating as a team serves to encourage the nurturing of basic human skills which people already possess and potentially opens new possibilities for how people experience and perceive their social connections.

So, lesson number two stated another way: Support Teams constitute a potent medicine.

What Support Teams Are NOT

DSC_0254When I start to talk about Support Teams, I’ve learned that everyone already has an idea of what I’m talking about – and in many cases, it isn’t what I’m talking about.

People like it when I say that I’m working with Support Teams, but I’ve found that I need not assume they understand what we’re actually up to.  For example, when I say “Support Team,” some people think, “support group.” They imagine groups of people who’ve suffered similar illnesses, losses, or tragedies in their lives who gather with others who’ve had similar experiences in order to talk their experiences out. Sort of like Viet Nam veterans needing other Viet Nam veterans or cancer survivors supporting cancer victims. Those kinds of groups do a world of good and help people live through and survive sometimes unspeakable pain, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Often, when I say “support team,” people think we’re organizing financial aid.   Some folks imagine that we provide resources for getting into skilled nursing facilities or help in finding low-cost housing, or a car, or car repairs, or something on the lines of Meals DSC_0214on Wheels. In fact, one of our three boundaries set when we form a support team includes refraining from any exchange of money.  While Support Teams often address many of those kinds of practical needs, Support Teams function on the basis of generosity and volunteerism. (You can read more about this in our 10 Best Practices list by clicking here.)

The word “network” can throw some people off, as well. They imagine that we have a collection of teams waiting for assignments, teams of people who await a person for whom they can care.  All we need to do is call one of these teams and direct them toward the patient/family who needs the team.  While this resembles closely a dream I’ve had since coming to UAB, we don’t have a cadre of teams on standby ready at any moment to be “called up.”

Right now, the word “network” in our title describes the growing community of persons who’ve discovered the genius of this methodology for doing what I like to call “nurturing community.” As time goes on, I envision a cohort of people we’ve trained to be coaches. These folks would do precisely what I described in the preceding paragraph. They’d receive a call from one of us here in the hospital regarding a particular patient, then partner with us in taking the lead to assemble a team of volunteers who would become a Support Team.  Right now, however, we’re still building and it will be a while before this aspect of our network exists.

My beautiful pictureSo, when I speak of organizing support teams, it boils down to entering into the world of a particular patient and discovering how best to walk with that person in weaving a supportive community from the various strands of his or her life as it is.

In the next post, I’ll reflect a bit on meaningful ways to describe proactively what we’re up to with Support Teams.

Top Ten Lessons Learned Thus Far

My "path" hasn't always been this straight.

My “path” hasn’t always been this straight.

It’s a New Year, and the occasion gives me the opportunity to reflect on what’s happened (and not happened) since I’ve been here at the Support Team Network.  I came to UAB Hospital almost two years ago and took on the mantel of “Support Team Network Manager.”  I remember the excitement I felt.  Support Teams had been an effort begun in 1994 at The 1917 Clinic.  It had been extremely effective in that outpatient context, and now I had been called to be a part of the effort to integrate the Support Team method into the UAB Hospital inpatient context.  I knew I’d embarked on a journey through uncharted territory laced with unforeseeable obstacles and pitfalls.  Indeed, the path has twisted significantly over these last 23 months and yielded a number of valuable lessons.  Over the next few weeks, I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learned.

DSC_0200Here’s the top lesson I’ve learned: When a Support Team forms, it makes a huge difference in the lives of all involved.  For an example, read the blog entry from November 17, 2015.  That’s both the first AND last point I’ll make in this series: whatever the difficulties you might face in launching a support team for someone, when a team forms, it’s TOTALLY WORTH IT!

Nevertheless, ten lessons stand out and beginning with the next post, I’ll develop them in a more detail.

  1. Everyone already has an idea of what I’m talking about, and in most cases, it isn’t what I’m talking about.
  2. When I make it clear what I’m talking about, most everyone thinks it’s a great idea.
  3. People resist what they perceive as someone trespassing on their family space. People don’t like to think that someone’s thinking of THEM as emotionally needy, or in need of counsel to improve their family, social system.
  4. No support team forms unless there is a relationship of trust.
  5. People who accept teams understand the importance of healthy community. They also have an understanding that enlisting allies in nurturing their community is a strength and a skill, not a sign of weakness, or a short coming.
  6. Pastors see support teams as “one more obligation” and shy away from accepting this kind of partnership.
  7. Churches tend to respond collectively the way many families do on a smaller scale.
  8. The window for forming a team from the inpatient context is rather narrow. It needs the cooperation of more than just the intervention of a chaplain, and certainly, more than the appearance of the STN manager.
  9. The dynamics of ethnic differences influence how people respond.  One needs profound sensitivity in these cases.
  10. When an ST forms, it makes a huge difference in the lives of all involved.

In the next post, I’ll deal with #1.

A Christmas Blessing

When I look at this picture of the house in Virginia in which I lived longer than any other house, before or since, I think of the following blessing . . .


. . . May your path during this Christmas Season lead you to an open door which swings wide as you step into warmth and light; where a crowd of faces turns toward you, lifts glasses of good drink and calls your name with gleeful loudness; where you can smell the aroma of spiced cider and seasoned meat and the greenery of the garlands and the tree; where you feel the embrace of friends and loved ones, and the soft press of kisses on your cheeks, and yea, even on your lips; where a fire flickers and warms the arches of your socked feet as you sit back and stretch out your legs, your mug cupped in your hands; where squeals of delight follow tears of wrapping paper; where everyone knows that each other’s presence constitutes the true presents. May your path during this Christmas Season lead you to a warm welcome where you can share firm embraces with the ones you love.

Yes, I know . . . that blessing depicts a rather idyllic scene, idyllic for some of us. For my friends from the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas images don’t include scenes of people finding shelter from a harsh winter, rather they think of barbecues on the patio while holding cocktails and wearing Hawaiian shirts and sandals. Indeed, this Christmas of 2015 will be remembered in the eastern third of the USA for its incredibly high temperatures, with numbers in the 70’s for Birmingham and Atlanta, and 60-something in New York City and Washington. Hardly a “Currier and Ives” sort of scene.

And yet, the picture of that house calls to mind something very basic in our humanity: we all long for hospitality in the midst of what Don Henley called “a graceless age.”  The world can turn quite “cold” on us, even when the temperatures approximate May more than December. We can feel shut out and ignored by a gray and grouchy society. The ears of our souls ache from the harsh rhetoric of campaigning politicians and we have to reckon with an economic system indifferent to our personal realities. In the face of all that, our hearts long for welcome, warmth, and well being. We long for the embrace of fellowship where eyes look unflinchingly at us and nonetheless confirm the deepest thing in us, where we know we’re noticed, accepted, understood, and loved.

BrooksideHouse2So, I’ll say it again. May your path this Christmas Season lead you to an open door which swings wide . . . on the warmest welcome you’ve ever had.

“Community is Medicine”

Clint Eastwood as "The Outlaw Josey Wales"

Clint Eastwood as “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

I love the Geico commercial that has fun with the “loner cowboy.”  Have you seen it?  The cowboy sits on his horse while his girl comes running out weeping hysterically and yelling, “Don’t go, Jessie!”  He says, “I’m sorry, Daisy, but I’m a loner.  And a loner has to be alone.”  He then kicks his horse and goes riding off (only to slam his head against the letter “E” when “The End” appears across the screen – if you’ve seen it, it makes humorous sense).  I love the commercial, not because of the insurance, but because of the way it recognizes, and has a little fun with, that iconic staple of the American Western: the Rugged Individual.

Of course, that Rugged Individual motif shows up in far more serious narratives, like the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” starring an icon in his own right, Clint Eastwood.  In that movie, Eastwood portrays a former Confederate soldier, Josey Wales, whose wife and son are murdered by shadowy Union sympathizers.  Wells then sets out on the proverbial path of revenge, riding by himself from town to town hunting down the perpetrators of the crime.  He intends to ride alone, nursing his grief and rage.  As he rides, however, he reluctantly assembles a motley crew of other victims of Western movie peril until he has a veritable entourage going from place to place with him.  Finally, they find a ranch outside a town, which they all defend in an expected gunfight, and then Wales rides into town to confront – and dispatch – the ring leader of the aforementioned shadowy Union sympathizers.

Josey-Wales-filmHowever, when Wales returns to the tavern after the demise of the last villain, a US Marshall sits in the corner, a hat pulled down over his face, with his searing eyes glinting through the shadow of the brim.  Wales and the Marshall lock eyes.  Standing around the tavern, though, are the members of Wales’ motley assemblage.  One of them looks at Wales and says, “Hello, Mr. Jones!  This marshall here is looking for an outlaw by the name of Josey Wales.  You know anything about him?”  And everyone else in the bar participates in the ruse.  The marshall obviously knows that everyone’s lying, but he’s also impressed with the fact that Wales is so loved.  So, as he and Wales continue to look at one another, the Marshall says, “Mr. Jones, you’re a very fortunate man to have so many good friends.” And he rides away.

The point?  Even rugged individuals can’t do it alone.

Recently, Krista Tippet, who hosts the NPR program, “On Being,” interviewed three medical professionals in a program entitled, “The Evolution of Medicine.”  One of the three professionals was Mark Hyman, a physician and the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.  I was struck by how Dr. Hyman spoke of the power of community for healing sickness.  In fact, he said that “the power of community is central to health care,” and then later made it even stronger when he said, “. . . community IS medicine.”  Dr. Hyman and the other participants made it clear that as 21st century medical practice evolves, more and more attention needs to be paid to the power of community to support and heal the individual.  In fact, the three panelists emphasized that more than ever, we need to realize that most of our problems – and the solutions to them – are systemic in nature.

Even that rugged individualist, The Outlaw Josey Wales, discovered that his community became the support system that solved his problem.  Likewise, as we learn more about what makes for a life filled with health and well being, we increasingly see how important it is to pay attention to the systems of which each of us is a part.  Indeed, as we organize Support Teams for folks we know, in Mark Hyman’s words, we’re actually doing a very important form of medicine.  Community heals.  I’ve often described what we do with Support Teams as nurturing community and the more I do this, read, and interact with members of this amazing hospital community at UAB, I know that medicine isn’t just what the physicians and nurses do around the hospital bed or in the rehab clinic.  When we prepare meals for one another, assist with chores, listen to each other’s stories, or simply sit with each other in silence, we’re participating in a healing process – because community IS medicine!

The last thing we need to do is ride off and try to do this thing alone.

Rubbing Shoulders with Greatness

Doug Welle, from Birmingham Southern College, looked out of his tent somewhere in Turkey, 9,000+ feet above sea level. The thin, cold air bit him, but he braved it so he could take in the unlikely sight in front of him down at the archeological dig he and his crew had been working for about a month. The relief crew had arrived the previous night after a four hour drive that immediately followed a long flight from the States across Europe and into Ankara. Surely that crew needed rest and, indeed, all of them still slept – all but one.

Dr. Jeannette Runquist

Dr. Jeannette Runquist

She stood down by the dig site at a table spread with bones, a clip board cradled in one arm, a cup of coffee in the other, and an ash tray filled with cigarette butts on the corner of the table.

Welle shook his head to himself, gathered his coat, and walked to the dig. “Jeannette, is there anything I can do for you?”

She looked up from her notes and said, “I’m out of coffee. You could get me more coffee.” She went back to scribbling notes, then added, “Oh, and you can empty my ash tray.”

That was Dr. Jeannette Runquist, a biology professor at Birmingham Southern College, and according to Welle, because of her brilliant and disciplined professionalism as a crack archeologist, she single-handedly saved that archeological project from being shut down.

But that wasn’t all there was to Jeannette. In her capacity as part of the biology faculty at BSC, she carefully guided countless pre-med students into medical careers with incisive counseling. She taught biology without notes, prolifically writing the salient points on the chalk board. When students didn’t like her, it usually rose from the fact that she didn’t coddle them. She expected them to render their best, but she didn’t just tell them to perform, she gave them the tools to perform. Her course on comparative vertebrate anatomy (CVA to the students) drew rave reviews from some and, of course, derision form those who found it difficult. Indeed, she had a reputation for rigor and toughness that terrified students, but she also had a warmth and tenderness that conveyed love for those same students and especially for her subject. She evinced the essence of being a professor.

I met Dr. Runquist through my work as the Support Team Network Program manager at UAB Medicine. I had received a consult from the outpatient pulmonary unit of The Kirklin Clinic. When I went into the room, I saw an older woman, rather thin and somewhat slumped, tethered to an oxygen tank, with rapid, shallow breathing that typifies many patients nearing the end of the effects of a lifetime of heavy smoking. I confess that my prejudices kicked in. I often find it somewhat difficult to conjure sympathy for someone whose symptoms derive from what I think are poor personal choices. Nevertheless, I engaged her in conversation and after a few minutes, it became apparent to me that I had come into the presence of a very sharp, well informed intellect.

After conversing with Jeannette for about 15 minutes about how our Pastoral Care department offers Support Team follow-up and training free of charge as an aspect of our mission, she surveyed the brochure I’d given her and said, “I’m impressed. This is holistic medicine.” She said she’d like to have a support team organized. When I left the room, I realized – again – that I really need to watch how I prejudge people when I first see them.

Through Jeannette, I met Megan Gibbons and Pete Van Zandt, neighbors and faculty colleagues in the department of biology at BSC. Megan and Pete had already logged hundreds of hours of support for Jeannette, visiting her in the hospital, bringing her meals, looking in on her, and running errands with and for her.  On one occasion, when Jeannette’s sister died, Megan and Jeannette traveled to Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina to take care of the sister’s affairs.  No wonder Jeannette identified Megan as the one who’d be a great team leader, and Megan hosted a team launch at her and Pete’s house.

As the support team gathered for orientation on that appointed evening, it became clear to me that quite a few people not only respected Jeannette, but loved her and wanted to demonstrate it. Through Megan’s exemplary organizational skills, they divided up how they’d respond to Jeannette’s needs, and by the time our intern, Kortney Sloan, and I left the meeting, they’d launched their care-giving game plan.

Katy Smith (r), a member of Jeannette's Support Team, speaks at Jeannette's memorial gathering at Birmingham Southern College.

Katy Smith (r), a member of Jeannette’s Support Team, speaks at Jeannette’s memorial gathering at Birmingham Southern College.

The team only lasted for a couple of weeks because Jeannette’s medical condition deteriorated rapidly. On November 7th she died after emergency surgery, surrounded by members of her support team. Megan remarked that because of the support team’s efforts, Jeannette saw how much and how many people appreciated and loved her. “And that,” she said, “made the whole thing worth it.” At the memorial gathering on the campus of BSC, standing among a throng of Jeannette’s colleagues, students, and family, I learned that when I met Jeannette, I had rubbed shoulders with greatness.

Recently one of my Facebook “friends” posted a selfie he took on a flight. Clearly in the background, right across the aisle was Bernie Sanders, one of the dozens of current candidates for president. My friend’s caption conveyed that he was impressed Sanders was flying coach, but it was also clear that if it had been just another ordinary bloke, he wouldn’t have taken the picture. There was something cool about rubbing shoulders with greatness, even if it resulted from a chance seating assignment. (In the interest of full disclosure, I would’ve done the selfie, too.)

The fact is, though, that my friend rubs shoulders with greatness every day, and the persons in the seats on HIS side of the aisle more than likely have stories that would astound him if he’d learn them. As my experience with Jeannette illustrates, this holds true for all of us. It’s one of the reasons why I do what I do with the Support Team Network. As we pull together to care for folks and get past the initial impressions by opening our ears and hearts to listen, we often discover rich personal histories only recently masked by a veneer of disease.

I’m extremely thankful that Jeannette Runquist helped unearth that Truth for me again. I feel myself tremendously fortunate to have met Jeannette, Megan and Pete, and a fantastic support team – and for the opportunity to recognize that I’ve been rubbing shoulders with greatness all along.

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