Sunday, January 26, 2020

History of the Befriender Program

The Befrienderforum blog has a connection with the Befriender program at St. Luke's hospital beginning in 1966. A member of the hospital Auxiliary was disturbed by the rule, “do not talk to patients when you take the notions cart (candy and nick hacks) around.” Mavoreen found patients wanting to talk.

My background, revealed in the different blogs, made her think I could be of some assistance. She asked, "How can we change the rule?" I was in my second year as the first resident chaplain and Mavoreen had been a youth assistant when I was in charge of Christian education at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Davenport. This was where my ministry resided for three years before coming to the Hospital. She knew my interests in lay ministry training.

At the time she appeared I was reading a book by Chad Varah, The Samaritans. He had started a suicide prevention group in London and the book told the story of their beginning as well as some of the emotions in the lives of those they cared for. Their discovery was to incorporate lay people as fron oft line responders. After lay people volunteered to serve tea to those waiting to see the professionals only half the people coming needed to see the professionals.

While reading I had been thinking that many of the same emotions written about were present in hospital patients. Could hospital patients benefit from a listener? Mavoreen gave me the opportunity to test this out. There is more than ample evidence today. We all have a needed relational component.l 

My proposal to the administrator was to train lay people to visit patients as "story listeners." As I made patient visits I found patients had a story to share. In fact, part of my training in Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital in New York City during the summer of 1953 had been with a supervisor whose approach was "story listening." I was to learn later that Fred Kuether was pioneering this approach in 1953. Almost 70 years ago now.

My proposal was not accepted immediately or readily. I needed the approval of the Hospital Auxiliary, nursing service, and the medical staff. The Auxiliary readily approved since they would have another volunteer service. Nursing service wanted the doctors to decide first. The Executive Committee of the Medical Staff took considerable time before giving their approval. It was reported to me, “they did not want amateur psychologists running around the hospital.” As a fact, at this time (1966) psychologist were not allowed to visit patients, only psychiatrists.

Upon approval of all concerned, the task was to train a group to be the "story listeners." Paul Swanson was the pastoral care professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Rock Island at the time. He had some experience with lay visitors when he was at Massachusetts General in Boston. 

I chose three people from Trinity Cathedral to be the first Befrienders. They had been part of our Youth Lenten discussion to facilitate and listen to the concerns of high school students. They received some listening training.

The initial course was 20 weeks, two hours a week, with listening being the major skill. An active listening approach was in vogue, although Fred Kuether was in the Rogerian, a non directive approach of Carl Rogers .

After some initial training our morning schedule began with chapel time, Scripture reading, discussion, and prayers. We used shortened Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.  Patient visits were then assigned. On the nursing floor they checked with the nurses about the advisability of seeing particular patient as well accepting referrals. The impact over time brought about a culture for story listening. Before leaving the hospital each Befriender wrote a short account of their visit to provide a debriefing session. The debriefing had multiple purposes, mainly to "keep our learning close to the practice" and “maintain confidentiality.” Over time a number of Aha!s were experienced. More about that as we go along.

The second year six people were accepted into the training and visiting. Folks came from different congregations. An application procedure for acceptance was put in place. In a few years our training involved 30 weeks with a two year commitment. There was no charge for the training. The 30 weeks were divided into three units. (1) The art of listening informed by the Incarnation,  (2) The different focus areas of our listening informed by reconciliation, and (3) a discussion of the three verbatim visits each was required to write informed by community building. They began to visit patients during the second unit and shortly after that they chose visits for the verbatim.

With this beginning we were about to learn as we went along making changes where needed. Antoine Boisen’s instructions, “study the living documents” became a guiding principle as well.  I later incorporated a management saying from MIT, "keep the learning close to the practice" The program is now past the 50th year and counting. I managed the Befrienders for 25 years. Others are continuing to lead in both Genesis and Unity Hospitals. More about our continuing history and our method of reflective listening will be added to the blog.  


Marlin Whitmer

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