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Road to being chaplain seemed crooked

Bill Strunk has found his niche as chaplain with MultiCare.

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

Looking back over his career, Bill Strunk, a chaplain at the MultiCare Deaconess and Valley Hospitals, sees that "God has written straight with crooked lines."

His paths in life have taken different turns that he couldn't have expected when he began his career.

In his current ministry, which requires him to meet grief daily, Bill is glad for what he can do to help hospital patients and staff learn how to cope with it.

"Here, I interact with grief in one way or another—in the death of a loved one, in the loss of autonomy or whatever brought someone to the hospital. Change is a constant, which means when any of us lose something, we are in a transition to what is to come," said Bill. "I often talk about grief and help teach people skills to deal with it."

In teaching these skills, he draws on the wisdom of the internationally recognized palliative care and hospice doctor, Ira Byock, who says that four simple phrases: "Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you" and "I love you" carry "enormous power to mend and nurture our relationships and inner lives."

Bill finds that to be true.

"When we use them, those words can go a long way in helping us cope with grief," he observed.

Offering spiritual care in a hospital setting was not something Bill came to directly. He came to it by a crooked line.

His life has had many changes in direction—some of his own choosing and some not, some causing grief and some not.

Bill was born the oldest of three children in the southern Idaho town of Wendell, about 100 miles southeast of Boise. His mother was a nurse and his father worked in different kinds of construction that often took him out of the country during the years Bill was 13 until he was in his late 20s.     

"Dad planned carefully so that he was always at home for the important times in our lives, like my sisters' performances or my baseball games. He really was there for us," Bill said.

When he went to the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Bill thought he would become a doctor. After nearly two years he discovered that his biology and chemistry classes didn't give him life, so he found what did and changed direction—another crooked line.

He began to look for opportunities for ministry.

Serving in college ministry for seven years in Washington led Bill to Fuller Seminary's branch campus in Seattle, where he earned a master of divinity degree in 2014. During that same time, he also served in hospital administration at Seattle Children's Hospital and loved the work.

By then he had married and was licensed by the Evangelical Covenant Church. In 2015, he and his wife, Claire, dreamed of planting a church in Bothell, north of Seattle.

"We had this dream to plant a church, but it didn't plant, and this was the death of our dream—another loss and another experience of grief in my life," Bill said. "We had to take another look at our identity and look hard at what could come next. That was another crooked line."

He had enjoyed his experience in hospital leadership in Seattle, so when a patient advocate position opened at Deaconess in Spokane, he applied and was hired.

His wife became a supply minister, serving when other pastors were away from their churches.

About six and a half years ago, Bill had another experience of God writing straight with crooked lines. His father passed away and he grieved.

Later during Clinical Pastoral Education, he learned about William Worden's four tasks of mourning, and he learned to accept the reality of the loss, to experience the pain of grief, to adjust to an environment with the deceased person missing and, in the end, to find an enduring connection with the "deceased" while embarking on a new life.

His own grief and experience of loss eventually led him into hospital chaplaincy five years ago—another crooked line.

It also led him to promote the No One Dies Alone program in the hospital.

This program provides a reassuring presence for dying patients who would otherwise be alone. Trained volunteers become supportive, compassionate companions to a dying person, giving them a dignified death.

"This program benefits everyone. It helps staff who have many patients to be with and, although they might want to, simply cannot spend time just being present," he said. "It also helps family members who may have already spent many days with the dying person and simply cannot stay any longer. It provides a comforting presence to the person at this important time of transition."

Despite the emphasis on grief that spiritual care in a hospital setting necessarily has, Bill has relationships which give him joy and has developed practices that help him maintain his inner peace.

Bill loves baseball and has been a lifelong fan of the San Diego Padres.  He spends time coaching the baseball team of his 11-year-old son, Jude, and has developed a strategy of coaching young players: "Have fun. Try hard and be a good teammate both to your team and the other team."

Soon his son will move into another level of baseball, and Bill will have to decide where his coaching career will go—to assist on his son's team or perhaps to continue coaching younger players.

"My nine-year-old daughter, Greta, has other interests," Bill explained. "She enjoys ballet and is on the swim team at the Y. I enjoy spending time with her, too."

A meditative practice grounds him each day as he makes the transition from home to work and back. He listens to podcasts like the "Pray as You Go" site, sponsored by the Jesuits and Kate Bowler's podcasts, "Everything Happens: Hard Truths, Soft Hearts." 

With these resources to support him, Bill comes to each day with a joyful heart.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March 2024