Several times I thought I saw the silhouette of angels moving around behind Chaplain Sills as I recently interviewed him in the Methodist Medical Center chapel. Reverend Jack Sills certainly needs angelic assistance in his role as the hospital chaplain here in Oak Ridge.
Just as you would expect, Chaplain Sills is a calm, gentle man who exudes kindness and understanding. This year, he will celebrate his 25th anniversary as the only full-time hospital chaplain Oak Ridge has ever had. He calls his role a “specialized form of ministry.”
Chaplain Sills describes his ministry as “the representative presence of the hospital’s belief that God is important in the care of patients, families, and staff.” He explained this to mean that the belief in God for human beings is important. His role in practical terms comes down to being a visible presence. Chaplain Sills continued: “Being present gives opportunity to others to discuss spiritual or emotional concerns without an agenda. I consider these to be holy moments.
“Most of the time the situation is crisis-focused.” he said. This could be in the emergency room, intensive care unit, or with tenuous surgeries, and may include not only the needs of patients and their families but also the needs of doctors, nurses, first responders, social workers, or anyone else. Working in this 301-bed facility with patients, their families, hundreds of physicians, and staff means Chaplain Sills could potentially be available to more persons at any given time than the pastoral staff of the largest churches in Oak Ridge.
Ministry to the hospital staff becomes as much as 50 percent of his duties. There have been staff members and volunteers who have passed away, and the need then arises for an opportunity that their family and coworkers may memorialize them. He has also held Bible studies for the staff and volunteers. He must maintain relationships with physicians as well. As part of the hospital’s Ethics Committee, he assists the hospital when a dilemma arises that demands serious decisions concerning the medical care of patients.
Chaplain Sills provides patient and family visitation, prayer and encouragement, memorial services, end of life support, and a brief Sunday morning chapel service for staff members and about a dozen people from the community. Two or three volunteer chaplains assist him. I was privileged to meet one of them while I was there, Joe Armento, who attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He was at the hospital to visit one of the members of the church. These volunteer chaplains do not represent their denomination, however, while serving patient’s needs under the chaplaincy ministry. They are available just as Chaplain Sills is, as a representative presence of the hospital.
Hospital chaplaincy began in the 1940s. For many years, the Oak Ridge hospital had a volunteer chaplaincy program, but around 1985, the hospital began to grow extensively. At the same time, Chaplain Sills began searching in some southern states for the opportunity to serve in a hospital. When his letter of inquiry was received by the Oak Ridge hospital, they quickly brought him onto their staff.
Chaplain Sills mentioned that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws have forced changes to hospital chaplaincy. Prior to that time, local pastors were welcome to review the patient registry looking for members of their own churches who might be in the hospital. While this was done with confidentiality, HIPAA laws are so restrictive now that local pastors are disallowed from doing that anymore. Chaplain Sills is only able to connect a patient with their own pastor today if the patient specifically asks him to do so.
“Over the years the level of sickness seen with patients has changed also,” he said. “People used to stay in the hospital for days during which time he could watch their recovery process and visit them for a longer period of time.” Medical care now is restricted to very serious illness. “The level of medical care is now advanced and more effective, so people are released sooner.” Many of those same patients would have died under the limitations of medical knowledge years ago.
“People are also less familiar with religion and God today,” he added. When asked, Chaplain Sills will do funerals when the patient doesn’t have a pastor and their family doesn’t either.
The interview ended when Chaplain Sills’ beeper sounded, and he was asked to assist a poverty-stricken patient being discharged who needed a ride home. He explained that this type of situation has increased 10-fold in recent years. “The results of poverty and the breakdown of the family have caused an increasing number of patients to need additional non-medical direction and support.”
Chaplain Sills did not leave me with the impression that he faces only difficulties. He also talked about the joys of seeing patients recover from illnesses. He shared the story of a patient who came out of a coma after the family had given up hope. He visited with the patient later, and the man thanked him deeply saying: “I’m so glad you all saved my life. Please tell the doctor; I’m so glad.” As we left the chapel, a patient’s family member caught him in the hall, hugged him, and shared with him how her family member was progressing.
The comment I most appreciated by Chaplain Sills came when he explained the early years in which he began to answer the call to ministry. During this time he did not assume that the call to ministry he was sensing would automatically lead to pastoring a church. He questioned God by asking, “So I’m called, but to what?” As he prayed and waited for God’s guidance, serving for three years as a pastor, in time he began to feel that God was pointing him in the direction of hospital chaplaincy. I have a great appreciation for those who are willing to fill roles in ministry outside the four walls of traditional church structure.
Thank you Chaplain Sills for faithfully and humbly serving our community for the last 25 years.
Besides writing articles for local news media, Myra Mansfield serves the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department as a chaplain, serves the Oak Ridge Ministerial Association, and supports several local nonprofit organizations with volunteer service.