Landscape photo of Malibu, CA

Report from NCTS-West, Sept. 18-20, 2022
Serra Retreat Center, Malibu, CA

by Rev. Brad Calhoun, M.Div., BCCC, BCPC


Topic: “Pastoral Aesthetics: The Arts of Ministry with Medical Professionals”

Against the backdrop of the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the Serra Retreat Center, Malibu, CA, the first live and “in-person” NCTS-West since October 2019 took place September 18-20, 2022. Being together again with colleagues was wonderfully refreshing and enlivening. Renewal of personal and professional acquaintances and friendships over meals and strolls on the beach rekindled the call to community found in our Covenant: “We place a premium on the significance of the relationships among ourselves.”

Making our time together all the more relevant, featured speakers Robert Dykstra and Nathan Carlin powerfully presented their new approach to chaplain engagement within the medical community.

Robert C. Dykstra is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was CPSP Plenary Speaker in New York City in March 2020 and is a longtime friend of CPSP.

Nathan Carlin is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is the Director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth Houston). Dr. Carlin holds the Samuel Karff Chair. He has published several articles and books, including Pastoral Aesthetics: A Theological Perspective on Principlist Bioethics. (NOTE: The entire December 2021 issue of Pastoral Psychology is devoted to analyses of Nathan’s book Pastoral Aesthetics.)

Dykstra and Carlin opened our minds and hearts to what they refer to as an “aesthetic approach,” encouraging chaplains to hold ourselves as artists, drawing ourselves into increased roles within the administrative structures of the medical community.

Two major lectures, workshops, and discussion groups led us to the following practical suggestions for increased engagement (offered by Carlin):

Find venues to offer Grand Rounds—specifically to offer Ethics CME (medicine) or CEU (nursing). Often staff (not faculty) organize these efforts. Also, consider connecting with program directors for these opportunities. 

  1. Offer Schwartz Rounds at your institution: 
  2. Not every hospital can afford a clinical ethicist. Consider getting a certificate in clinical ethics, focusing on conflict resolution. 
  3. Offer verbatims in various departments, especially psychiatry. 
  4. Teach solution-focused therapy (or motivational interviewing) in family medicine a. clerkships. 
  5. Teach or organize communication sessions on topics such as “How to Break Bad News.” 
  6. Offer grief workshops. 
  7. Offer reflective writing workshops (call it “Narrative Medicine”). 
  8. Help with accreditation. All accrediting bodies require some cultural competence, including religion and spirituality. 
  9. Embed your pastoral care activities with staff in wellness initiatives, emphasizing burnout. 
  10. Publishing case reports. Co-author with faculty or clinical ethicists. 
  11. Engage in advocacy, providing a moral voice for patients. 

The conference ended with a debrief asking participants to provide feedback on their experience. While some expressed initial doubts about the relevance of the announced topic to their work as chaplains, all agreed that the conference liberated our vision of chaplaincy and prodded us into implementing additional strategic approaches to energize the effectiveness of our professional voice.


photo credit: Brad Calhoun