By Josh Jarman
We all have preconceptions in life. Predetermined ideas of what is right and wrong based on our own upbringing, faith or lack of it, and individual life experiences. Preconceptions in and of themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes challenging them can soften hearts and lead to opportunities for love and grace.
Few people have borne witness to more changed hearts during moments of crisis than Melanie Childers, the Director of Pastoral Care at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (ARHS). For more than 20 years her ministry has allowed people of all faiths to feel safe and spiritually cared for while receiving their medical treatment in the High Country.
A Family Affair
Melanie was born and raised with classical and sacred music in her veins. Her father, Terry, served as the music minister at their church near their home in Concord, NC. Her mother, Betty, served as the church organist and together they managed all eight of the church choirs, including Melanie’s personal favorite, the hand-bell choir.
Each morning Melanie would wake up early to read her Bible, write in her journal and practice the piano before heading out the door to go to school. “I put myself on a disciplined regimen as a child,” she said with a grin. “Before I graduated high school, I read through the Bible seven times and I wrote my way through a stack of spiral-bound notebooks. I always considered my journal to be my personal sanctuary, my private place to pour out how I was really feeling about life, relationships and faith.”
Although she enjoyed playing the piano, Melanie refers to herself as the black sheep in the family. “My two younger brothers, Brian and Jason, also shared my parents’ affinity for music and they went on to enjoy successful careers in it. I love music too, but I was called to take a different path.”
Melanie felt called into ministry at an early age. She took the initiative to pray, memorize scripture and to make her own profession of faith at seven years old.
She also managed to skip the stereotypical “preacher’s kid” stage of rebellion. Rather, her only complaint came at the hands of her parents, who insisted that she wore a traditional dress each week for church. A rule she loathed, but reluctantly followed in order to keep the peace.
“Sunday evening was my favorite night of the week,” she said. “My father would order pizza after service and we would all unwind together in front of the TV, watching M*A*S*H and Murder, She Wrote.”
Spreading Her Wings
After finishing fourth in her high school class, Melanie went on to graduate from Mars Hill University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She then landed her first job as the managing editor for the American Choral Directors Association in Oklahoma.
“That job proved to be a cool juncture between music and writing for me,” she said. “But, after a year in that role, I still felt a tugging on my heart to go into the ministry, so I got back on track and went to seminary.”
Melanie struggled in seminary. She took pride in the fact that she could balance her school work with her job as a newspaper reporter. However, she sensed that not everyone was happy with her career choice. Outside pressure in the form of voiced disapproval came from those who felt that pastoral training at a seminary was intended only for men.
“I did question my faith during that time,” she said. “But, I believe that questioning one’s faith is a good thing. How can our faith ever be strengthened if it is not questioned?”
Perhaps in a moment of providential irony, the newspaper then assigned the seminary beat to Melanie. “I had to report on the political hot topics at the seminary that were actually affecting my life,” she said. “Ultimately, that experience taught me to research both sides of an argument. It also strengthened my own resolve to follow God’s calling in my life.”
Melanie went on to complete a two year chaplaincy program at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC. For chaplains, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training is similar to what residency training is like for doctors. The training program brings theological students of all faiths into supervised medical encounters with patients in crisis. This on-the-job training equips chaplains with the skills necessary to care for the various spiritual and emotional needs of patients and their families.
“I was drawn to chaplaincy work because hospitals are a great equalizer,” she said. “As a chaplain, you get to work with and minister to a great cross section of humanity.”
A Higher Calling
After completing her CPE program, Melanie applied for two chaplain positions, one at a hospital in Norfolk, VA, and the other at Watauga Medical Center in Boone, NC.
“I always loved the mountains,” she said. “So when the job in Boone called back first I jumped on it. My plan was to stay for just a few years, long enough to become board certified, but this place kind of grows on you.”
Not surprisingly, Melanie keeps to a purposeful routine at the hospital. Each morning she reviews the hospital census in order to determine which patients had either requested or been referred to a chaplain. She then works with an interdisciplinary care team to make rounds throughout the healthcare system.
“There is still a preconception out there that if you agree to see the chaplain, then you must be near the end of your life. But that is a total myth. My goal is to address the patient’s holistic needs,” she said. “In a very short amount of time, I try to introduce myself, establish some rapport, and then quickly move beyond casual courtesy to dealing with some really deep stuff that might be happening.”
Trained clinical chaplains are often referred to as “Intimate Strangers” for their ability to carefully enter into family dynamics in order to provide spiritual comfort. At ARHS, Melanie and her team of staff chaplains are often called upon to provide crisis intervention, bereavement care, spiritual assessments, religious rituals, and pastoral conversations that are consistent with the patient’s faith tradition.
“I am really passionate about interfaith work and respecting all people for whatever beliefs they may have,” she said. “In this line of work, you have to remember that these patients are actually people, often nervous and outside of their comfort zone. My goal is to earn their trust and then to honor their beliefs.”
Some faith traditions ascribe to strict medical guidelines. Melanie is well-versed in this area and frequently makes notes in the medical record to ensure that faith-based medical requests are known and honored by the attending medical team.
Melanie states that her faith has grown and evolved over the years. “Working with people of all faiths and people of no faith invites you to expand outside the boxes of your youth,” she explained. However, her spiritual beliefs continue to guide her compassionate care for people.
Melanie’s job requires ordination and endorsement from a recognized faith group. These credentials are granted to her from the United Church of Christ. She is an active member of the High Country United Church of Christ, but also visits regularly in other High Country congregations, and occasionally provides pulpit supply for various churches. In 2000, Melanie became a board certified chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains. She is active on the state and local levels of her professional field, and served on the board of the Association of Professional Chaplains from 2004-2007.
Outside of her chaplaincy work, Melanie also has a master’s degree from Appalachian State University in Professional Counseling. “I’m often asked to provide counseling for patients in the at the cancer center. When that happens, I literally flip my pastoral care name badge over to the other side so patients can see that I am also a licensed professional counselor.”
She also oversees the AppFaithHealth program, co-chairs the hospital’s ethics committee, and coordinates the organ donation program, palliative care program, and supervises interns in both chaplaincy and counseling.
Despite the rewarding nature of her work, Melanie does admit that it can and often does take an emotional toll. To recharge, she meditates and enjoys spending time outdoors with her best friend and life partner Cath Hopkins. The couple tied the knot in 2014.
Belief in Miracles
After having spent the better part of her career ministering to families in crisis, Melanie was recently asked whether or not she believes in miracles.
“I do believe in miracles,” she said. “I have a great respect for medicine and all that it does, but I also know that there are other things at work, such as faith and prayer. I have witnessed remarkable things that I cannot explain away scientifically. That does not for me diminish their value and their reality. I guess we just have to put those things in the category of miracle.”
Now in her twentieth year of service, Melanie jokes that she knows where every tissue box is located in the hospital. To that end, she also keeps her “spiritual crash cart” well-stocked with warm blankets, Bibles, devotion books, rosary beads, anointing oil, music, labyrinths and some non-traditional items like coloring books.
“Experience has taught me not to make assumptions in life,” she said. “As a society, we are quick to judge and quick to put people into boxes. But, suffering often serves as a humble reminder that we are all more alike than we are different. My goal is to be truly present with each patient, to provide them with love, grace and spiritual comfort.”