Rabbi A. James Rudin recently wrote about the growing need for clergy of all faiths to be prepared to help those dealing with tough choices related to end of life care. He asserts that often the questions being asked at the bedside of the dying are not as much related to deep metaphysical questions but are much more pragmatic and ethical:
Rather, [the] questions, usually asked in a hospital room, go like this. “My beloved family member is gravely ill. The doctors are recommending some extraordinary and complex medical treatments. I am confused and I am being asked to make a decision. As my spiritual leader, please tell me, what should I do?”
Unfortunately many clergy are not provided much opportunity for education in medical ethics and how it relates to their particular faith. Some denominations require some clinical pastoral education which, depending on the training center, would provide invaluable insights into the day-to-day decisions encountered in trauma units and hospices. But this represents only a very small group of those in ministry training, and an even smaller percentage of those currently in ministry. Other seminaries offer courses in medical ethics, but these are almost always elective. Because of these deficits, Rudin concludes:
Medical science and technology will move forward with or without the religious community. Major decisions about health care in the U.S., including the staggering question of withdrawing and withholding life support systems from desperately ill or comatose patients, will be made with or without the “benefit of clergy.”
If the best thinkers within our faith communities do not address these issues in a thoughtful and informed way, others will decide for us, and that would be an abdication of religious leadership. If that happens, rabbis, priests, pastors and imams will have no one to blame but themselves, and worst of all, desperately ill patients and their troubled families will be the losers.
What has been your experience as a minister or as a chaplain? Did you have adequate training to help others cope with complex end of life issues?