Stephen Ministers serve patients, families at Fort Sanders Regional

Jay FitzOur Town Health

Whether for a planned visit or unforeseen circum­stance, a trip to Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center is a possibility for many of us at any time. Beyond physical care, Fort Sanders Regional offers spiritual care and an extra layer of emotional support for pa­tients and families through a volunteer program called Stephen Ministry.


A Stephen Minister is a lay­person (non-ordained) who is trained to give compassionate emotional and spiritual care to a patient or family member while in the hospital. Stephen Ministers are trained to serve people of all faiths and across levels of spirituality; in oth­er words, they “meet people where they are.”

Evidence shows that healthcare chaplains’ pres­ence and interventions make a positive difference to pa­tients and family members as they cope with their situation and their healing. Patients who call upon spiritual re­sources throughout their ill­ness experience less discom­fort and greater satisfaction with their treatment.

Finding a Calling

Chaplain Randy Tingle has served as the supervisor of pastoral care at Fort Sand­ers Regional since 2011. A United Methodist pastor, he has served churches and other small hospitals as an ordained minister. He now oversees a team of four part-time chap­lains to help meet the need at Fort Sanders Regional.

Tingle says Stephen Min­isters are individuals who feel called to this service. They share qualities such as compassion for others and the gifts of discernment.

“It’s amazing to see the peo­ple that God sends here,” Tingle says. “We have retired profes­sors, bankers, educators, retired nurses – the diverse background of those who come and serve shows the depth and reach of this program. I am honored to work with volunteers who are serving our community in this way.”

Difficulty During Covid-19

During the pandemic, Tin­gle facilitated “debriefing” groups for staff, who often became the communication link between patients and their families during a cha­otic time.

“Our patients, families and staff felt the isolation that was a result of Covid’s impact on our healthcare fa­cilities,” Tingle says. “The anxiety, exhaustion and emotional taxation for all involved created a need for continual compassionate and spiritual care. It has just shown what a difference this program can make in our emotional health during a difficult time.”

Impact of Ministry

Stephen Ministers are uniquely trained to provide spiritual care and comfort to a diverse group of patients with individual spiritual identities and needs, and therefore add a depth and dimension of care that would otherwise be neglected.

Chris Davis

Chris Davis has volun­teered with the program for seven years. About 10 years ago, he was hospitalized as a patient at Fort Sanders Regional and spent time at Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center. As Davis rehabilitat­ed, he sought a way to give back to the community.

“I wanted to help people,” Davis says. “One day I was there for therapy and saw a bulletin for Stephen Ministry, so I attended the train­ing. For anyone considering whether or not to get involved, I recommend coming to check it out, pray about it and try it out if you feel called.”

Davis says that when a Stephen Minister volunteer visits a patient, they are sometimes the only visitor the patient has. “We are there to minister to both the patient and their family, lis­ten to them, whatever they need. It’s that emotional healing piece on top of the medical care they are get­ting. Even if it’s just a quick hello, knowing someone is there who cares can make a world of difference.”

More than 5,000 patients per year have benefitted from this service, and Ste­phen Ministers volunteer more than 700 hours annu­ally. Tingle says he’s been blessed to watch the growth in spiritual service of more than 60 individuals who found their “calling to care” for others in need through this program. “I have seen people’s lives impacted who are both caregivers and vol­unteers alike.”

What’s Involved?

Stephen Ministers have a presence in many areas of the hospital: Med-surg (pre- and post-operation), cardiology, orthopedic and oncology units, as well as the transitional care unit for people undergoing short-term rehabilitation for in­stances like hip replacement. They also visit the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center and serve spine and neu­rological patients.

A Blessing and a Need

Stephen Ministry training consists of a 50-hour training class covering topics such as grief, suffering, emotional issues per­sistent in a hospital setting and confidential­ity guidelines. These volunteers also review the basics of family systems, talk therapy, how to implement effective listening skills, exhibit strong boundaries and watch for behavioral signs like suicide ideation.

Each group of commissioned Stephen Ministers then makes a commitment to visit in the hospital at least one hour each week for two years following the training. Volun­teers select their own hours and are asked to participate in twice monthly education gatherings to remain engaged, supervised and prepared for the ministry at hand.

Info: Randy Tingle at 865-331-1235 or rtingle@covhlth.com.

Story provided by Covenant Health

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