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Meeting examines how cutting provincial funding for spiritual care affects patients and families, as well as denominational chaplains and volunteers

Jacqueline Saretsky, coordinator of hospital chaplaincy in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, was one of the speakers at a meeting Oct. 3 held to discuss changes to spiritual care in hospitals and care homes with the elimination of provincial government funding. She is one of the denominational chaplains and volunteers now navigating the system without the infrastructure and support of a spiritual care department in the Saskatoon Health Region. The SHR spiritual care department was eliminated Sept. 27 because of the funding cut.

Impact of cutting spiritual care funding in hospitals and care homes addressed at Saskatoon information meeting

Denominational chaplains and volunteers continue to visit - but without the support of a spiritual care department in the Saskatoon Health Region

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski

Hospital chaplains, pastors, and spiritual care volunteers were among those who gathered Oct. 3 for a meeting about the elimination of government-funded spiritual care services in Saskatchewan health care facilities.

Information and concerns about the new reality in the Saskatoon Health Region were provided at the meeting held at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon, along with suggestions about provincial advocacy and moving forward.

As part of the 2017 provincial budget announced March 22, government funding for “pastoral care services” was eliminated from provincial health care (for an estimated savings of some $1.5 million annually).

The impact of the announcement became reality at Saskatoon City Hospital and Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon on Sept. 27, with the elimination of the spiritual care department in the Saskatoon Health Region (SHR). Spiritual care services continue to be offered at St. Paul’s Hospital, since spiritual care at the Catholic hospital is funded through a legacy from the Grey Nuns.


The situation in other long-term care facilities and hospitals across the province varies, with some facilities like Parkridge Centre Special Care Home without spiritual care services, while some – especially faith-based facilities – continuing to offer spiritual care.


As well, various denominations, churches and faith groups are striving to continue offering pastoral and spiritual care to their members who are admitted to health care facilities, but without the support and coordination previously provided by the SHR spiritual care department.


But patients who do not declare a faith affiliation – some 50 per cent of those admitted to SHR facilities – will no longer receive the spiritual support that hospital spiritual care professionals provided before the funding was cut.

At the information meeting, Simon Lasair ­ a former spiritual care practitioner in the SHR who presently serves as the Saskatchewan Regional Admitting Chair of the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care – provided an overview of what spiritual care consists of, and what the elimination of government funding for spiritual care means for patients, staff, and denominational chaplains and volunteers.

Every human being has a spiritual dimension, and spiritual care is a crucial form of care within public health care, said Lasair. When patients or their families face a crisis, they often need to explore spiritual questions, regardless of whether they have a formal faith affiliation or not, he stressed. 

In addition to patients and families, spiritual care professionals in the province’s hospitals and long term care facilities also provided support to staff who are often dealing with trauma, loss or other crises, he said. “Many times in my own practise of spiritual care, I would have a conversation with a staff member who was experiencing an issue, and I was able to provide support for that person.” 

Spiritual care is sometimes called a “ministry of presence,” said Lasair. 

“In times of crisis, spiritual care practitioners are exceptionally skilled at offering emotional and spiritual support,” he described. “Spiritual care practitioners – who work in the hospitals, who work in long-term care – are able to sit and just bear witness to the pain and suffering of the person to whom they are providing care.” 

Other health professionals might be sensitive to the spiritual concerns of patients and their families, but no other health care providers are trained to care for these needs explicitly, Lasair stressed. 

Certified spiritual care practitioners undergo extensive training, and have achieved at least a Masters level of academic study in theology, divinity, or the equivalent, and have also acquired some 1600 hours of specialized training in clinical pastoral education, and an additional 1000 hours of preparation through a rigorous certification process, Lasair listed, describing the professionalism of spiritual care practitioners. As part of the hospital accreditation process, the national non-profit Accreditation Canada body recommends that professional spiritual care be an integral part of health care teams. 

“As a result of this decision, this specialized knowledge, this specialized practise is no longer available to patients and their families in many Saskatchewan hospitals,” Lasair said. In addition, other health care professionals who already have a myriad of tasks when it comes to patient care, must now operate without the support of a spiritual care practitioner on the health care team. 

Professional spiritual care improves health care outcomes, with research showing that it reduces the likelihood of secondary stress-related health concerns, as well as expensive interventions at the end-of-life, the gathering heard. 

The elimination of the spiritual care department in the Saskatoon health region means that many patients and families will no longer have 24-hour, on-call access to spiritual care. “There were times when I was called out in the middle of the night because there was someone in the intensive care unit who was in crisis, the family was needing support – that service will no longer be available to patients and their families,” said Lasair.        

Various denominations, clergy and volunteers will continue to provide some support to some patients, Lasair said, but many more patients will not receive the support they need. 

“Under privacy legislation, denominational clergy are not permitted to be contacted by hospital personnel unless there is a specific request for them, or unless the person requesting support belongs to their specific denomination. Given that there are, on any given day in the health care facilities, at least 50 per cent of people, patients, families who have no stated religious affiliation: those people are not going to get access to any spiritual support.” 

As well, the infrastructure surrounding the professional practice of spiritual care in hospitals and other care facilities is now eliminated – something which impacts the pastoral and spiritual care being provided by churches and faith communities. 

There is now a vacuum when it comes to the connection between SHR facilities and various denominations wishing to be contacted about parishioners or congregation members who are in hospital and need support – something that is particularly troublesome for smaller denominations or faith groups that do not have a regular program of patient visiting. “We are not sure how some of the people (in hospital) are going to be able to contact local clergy to get the support they need when they are in a time of crisis,” said Lasair. 

As well, day in and day out, it was the spiritual care department that provided patient lists of congregation members in hospital to the visiting clergy and denominational volunteers, always operating within the bounds of privacy legislation. Without the spiritual care department to coordinate that service, privacy concerns may make it more difficult for hospitals to offer that service. In some cases, this has already made visits by local clergy and faith-based volunteers a bit more difficult, and adds to the possibility that patients in crisis are being missed, he said. 

It was also noted during the meeting that some patients who do not specify a denomination when admitted, would at times do so later in conversation with the health region’s spiritual care professional, permitting the spiritual care department to eventually connect the patient with their faith community, or to answer a patient’s request to help facilitate reconciliation or healing of his or her estranged relationship with a particular denomination. 

The spiritual care department also provided orientation and information to local clergy and volunteers around such matters as infection control requirements and privacy legislation. “It will not be as streamlined a process as it was previously,” he said. Church representatives and volunteers will now have to travel to St. Paul’s Hospital for that registration and paperwork. 

Other services have now also been lost as a result of the elimination of government funding for spiritual care departments. 

“The (spiritual care) departments, through their administrative support, were able to facilitate the provision of religious services within health care facilities on a regular or on-demand basis,” said Lasair. This included recruiting and organizing local clergy to assist with services or ceremonies. For instance, although Roman Catholic Mass continues to be provided at Saskatoon City Hospital and Royal University Hospital (organized through the diocesan office of hospital chaplaincy, funded by the Bishop’s Annual Appeal), other Sunday services are no longer being offered, because of the elimination of the infrastructure needed to organize those services – contacting and organizing local clergy and ministry leaders, arranging for volunteers to transport patients to the services, etc. 

At times when patients were unable to attend significant family or life events, the spiritual care department would assist in booking, or organizing such things as weddings or funerals at the hospital chapel. “This is no longer going to happen, because there is no one to oversee what is happening in the chapels, there is no one there to facilitate the services for these people who are needing to have these significant life events while in hospital.” 

In summary, the elimination of the government-funded spiritual care in health care facilities has created a serious vacuum that will impact patient care, Lasair said. 

Jackie Saretsky, coordinator of Hospital Chaplaincy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, also spoke, describing how the whole of spiritual care has fallen on the shoulders of denominational chaplains and volunteers, and she described some of the changes in procedure that are happening as a result of the elimination of the spiritual care department in the Saskatoon Health Region.

Saretsky encouraged the pastors, ministers and spiritual/pastoral care volunteers in the room to make sure they get their health region clearance tags, necessary paperwork and checks done to reassure staff and patients. Another step would be to get Clinical Pastoral Education training, she added. “We have been called to a specific and important and worthy ministry, and we are professionals at what we do. That is why I encourage you to get the proper education,” she said. 

“We need all of you on board, we need all of you to act and support and encourage each other to maintain that high standard, to show the government and the hospitals that the bar is high, we have been called to go and answer (that call) to the best of your ability,” said Saretsky. 

Now that the spiritual care department has been eliminated, churches and various denominations need to take the initiative to make sure that the names of designated chaplains are on the health region lists for both City Hospital and RUH, so that the correct, up-to-date information will be available at the switch board, to nurses’ desks, at emergency and in the intensive care unit, to ensure that staff know who to call “to get the right chaplain to the right patient,” she said. 

As the health care system in Saskatchewan undergoes other fundamental changes, with the planned elimination of health regions and the creation of a single provincial health authority, church leaders and denominational chaplains are also looking ahead, hoping to develop a new spiritual care affiliation agreement with that new single health authority, Saretsky noted. “They are redesigning a lot of things, and maybe spiritual care will be redesigned along with that.” 

Rev. Ron Bestvater of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada reported that right now only a few faith groups have negotiated an agreement with the Saskatoon Health Region for provision of denominational spiritual/pastoral care, including the United Church, the Anglicans, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. 

The creation of a new province-wide health region will call for serious ecumenical engagement and cooperation to ensure that people are cared for, he stressed. “We need to get together to ensure we have a common affiliation agreement with the new authority when it comes about.” 

“If your denomination isn’t included in the affiliation agreement – start making noise within your congregation, within your denomination, within your church and get that process going, so that affiliation agreement gets expanded to include all of us who need it,” Bestvater said. “Volunteers – you cannot be fired, and if you show up, somebody will have to make a decision about what to do with you, nobody knows who that somebody is going to be right now, but what I am saying is: be the squeaky wheel.” 

There is still a willingness within the health care region for spiritual care to be provided by denominational chaplains and volunteers, but the mechanism and the support of an actual department is gone, he stressed. 

In the discussion that followed, it was again noted by participants that the presence of denominational chaplains still does not answer the needs of the 50-some-percent of patients who do not belong to a faith community. They may not have an affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they do not have fear, or a need to talk to someone about existential questions or the experience of dealing with illness, suffering or dying, the group heard. 

Ways to advocate for publicly-funded spiritual care in the provincial health system were discussed, with participants noting the need to stress the health care benefits of spiritual care, which in turn brings financial savings. There was also a question raised as to whether the elimination of publicly-funded non-denominational spiritual care is a violation of the human rights of patients without a faith connection.


The days when volunteers and non-professionals can handle this important outreach on their own has passed, another speaker suggested, comparing it to how a growing community moves beyond a volunteer fire department to a professional, paid department when the complexity, size and challenge of providing the service becomes too much for volunteers. 

Parish Nurse Ethna Martin of St. Philip Neri Parish suggested the issue must be talked about in local churches, and spoken about from the pulpit in order to raise public awareness about a cut to spiritual care services that many are not aware has happened. Those who require spiritual care for themselves or family members may now have to be more active in requesting that support, others noted. 

It was also suggested that with both the Saskatchewan Party and the New Democratic Party engaged in leadership races in Saskatchewan, this is a good time to raise the question with leadership hopefuls about their position on restoring funding to spiritual care in the health care system, as well as raising the issue with local MLAs. 

“As people of faith we are called to a loving response, a compassionate response to decisions that we deeply disagree with,” Lasair said, urging those concerned about the issue “to call the government to greater love, to greater compassion, to greater peace.” 

Lasair encouraged those in attendance to move beyond rage and frustration to work with each other and with government to address the issue, and to call government to account for the decision, but also calling them to a place of deeper love and compassion, as part of becoming “a more loving and inclusive society, a place where people of all faiths, of all religions, and all ethnicities can coexist, and call one another brothers and sisters.” 



Lutheran denominational chaplain Rev. Ron Bestvater, diocesan ecumenical coordinator Celeste Woloschuk, spiritual care practitioner Simon Lasair and Catholic hospital chaplaincy coordinator Jacqueline Saretsky (left to right) were among those speaking at an information meeting about changes to spiritual care in the provincial health care system, with the elimination of government funding.


Catholic Hospital Chaplaincy continues thanks to your generous gifts to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal. Although the publicly-funded hospital department of spiritual care has been eliminated because of provincial government budget cuts, Catholic chaplains, along with volunteer visitors who are trained and supported by the diocesan office of Hospital Chaplaincy continue to accompany patients and families in times of sickness, suffering and crisis at Saskatoon City and Royal University Hospitals – including Catholic patients from rural areas who otherwise would have no spiritual support. Spiritual care also continues at St. Paul’s Hospital, thanks to donations to that facility. For spiritual or pastoral care at Saskatoon City or Royal University Hospitals call Jackie Saretsky at the Catholic Centre: (306) 659-5839 or (306) 292-5531 or e-mail: hospitalchaplaincy [at] At St. Paul's Hospital inquire at the nursing desk, or call (306) 655-5000 and ask them to page Spiritual Care.

To donate online to the Bishop's Annual Appeal

Volunteers are needed to visit those in hospital - If you feel a call to serve Jesus in the sick and the suffering, please consider applying to be one of our volunteers in diocesan hospital chaplaincy at Saskatoon City Hospital and/or Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. Training and support is provided through the diocesan office of Hospital Chaplaincy, supported by gifts to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal. To apply as a volunteer, please contact Jackie Saretsky at the Catholic Pastoral Centre: (306) 659-5839 or (306) 292-5531 or e-mail: hospitalchaplaincy [at] "I was sick and you visited me..." - Matthew 25:36








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