Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Pastoring through life’s big changes

Looking, listening, touching — a program based at Walker Methodist trains pastors to work with people

Don’t be surprised if Pastor Shawn Mai is late for an appointment. The director of spiritual care at Walker Methodist Health Center Inc. in Minneapolis does crucial work. “I had a situation upstairs,” he apologizes. He could try to explain what he does in a classroom — but it’s better to show students. Moreover, a case could be made that we all have something to learn from his flock. Walker Methodist provides assisted living, skilled nursing, transitional care, rehabilitation therapy, and memory care. Mai, its director of spiritual care, leads an innovative program in clinical pastoral education. The City of Lakes Consortium CPE Center at Walker Methodist, accredited by the Association for Clinical Education Inc. of Decatur, Georgia, teaches “spiritual caregivers” from Christian and other faith backgrounds how to minister to care-center residents.

Other such programs are based in hospitals, where pastors typically see patients only once or twice. At Walker Methodist, pastors in training learn longer-term ministry. Students “develop a broader range of pastoral skills,” says Pastor Mai — and “deeper pastoral relationships.”

The situation upstairs? “We’re doing some room-moving of residents from one part of the building to another,” explains Mai. Such changes can be hard for residents. Pastors can help.

Every member of his flock faces more than routine difficulties. Some can’t hear. Some can’t remember. His training for students from local seminaries, says Mai, “broadens our ability to be where we need to be.”

Divinity students taking the program at Walker Methodist team with, and supplement the work of, healthcare professionals. A good healthcare pro may note that a resident’s blood pressure is normal and assume everything is fine. A pastor, on the other hand, might say to a resident, “You look a little blue today. What’s wrong?” Mai and his learners listen to peoples’ stories and, he says, “put some pieces together.”

Residents may be upset about a room change, or about losing their balance and falling, about loss of control in their lives. It may be out-and-out grief. Residents may miss friends and family. Some may have outlived them all. Many no longer can care for themselves. Some have chronic pain. The Rev. Mai cuts to the heart of their issues: “Who is God,” he asks, “that all of this is happening in my life?”

He tries to teach “what is it to stand alongside a person suffering that kind of loss,” he says, and “being an effective witness to to how one makes meaning of that.”

With students at hand alongside residents, he can show what to do. “Listen,” says the Rev. Mail, “and affirm.” His pastoral purpose is healing.

Wait a minute! Healing? For the infirm and aged?

Healing is what Jesus did — and the Greek word in the New Testament for saving is the same word for healing. Mai explains it as “having a sense of wholeness.” Members of his flock “are losing so much,” he says. He seeks to counter their loss with “belovedness” and “wholeness.”

Those who can’t hear or remember may require a touch on the hand or shoulder, or the right look. It’s beautiful when it works. Between Mai and any of his residents arises “this wonderful and odd and glorious sense of community with the two of us,” he says.

In such pairs, he cultivates “the common thread that brings us all together” and “a sense of acceptance in oneself. My essence can connect with your essence, and that is somebody larger than both of us. And that is God.”

The Rev. Mai graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul in 1992, serving at Central Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, from 1992 to 1997. He has served as a hospice chaplain and, in fact, began working as a nursing assistant in a Kansas nursing home when he was in eighth grade.

In such settings, change is inevitable — but still difficult. Residents at Walker Methodist don’t like the inevitable twists through which life’s roller coaster careens. Matt McNeill, its director of marketing and community affairs, can’t help but note that the same is true for anyone in any circumstance. “We’re never ready,” says McNeill, “for the next transition.”

You’re not prepared to go into assisted living? To retire? To lose your job? To break up with someone? To leave college?

Change always annoys us. Pastor Mai’s flock, however, may be ahead of the curve in terms of the biggest change of all: Are you ready for the Last Day? That big change could come at any time, remember. “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We all shall not sleep,” writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51, “but we shall all be changed.”

Some are already getting their transition practice, with help from Pastor Mai and his students