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LDS women chaplains, the errand of angels

By Genelle Pugmire daily Herald - | Apr 2, 2015
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Ronda Walker Weaver, a chaplain at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, and Rebecca Penailillo, left, a spiritual care volunteer, visit with Daniel Bowers, 81, in his hospital room on Monday, March 30, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Ronda Walker Weaver, a chaplain at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, chats with Brandon Schlecht, a chaplain intern, and Lynda Golding, a spiritual care volunteer, about a death in the Emergency Department earlier in the day on Monday, March 30, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

PROVO – If the errand of angels is given to women like the LDS hymn “As Sisters in Zion” claims, then LDS women chaplains are angels on steroids.

Last October, the Daily Herald published a story about Tami Fitzgerald Harris, the first non-military woman chaplain for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has been a chaplain since 1989 and is currently serving at Heritage School in Provo.

Harris said she is following in her father’s footsteps. He was a retired member of the military serving as a chaplain in a residential treatment center. He also was dying of cancer.

One day, he asked his daughter to help because he was too weak to preach. He died two days later. That launched her chaplain career.

Her story reached thousands and was read internationally.

What many local folks may not know is there are many LDS women serving as chaplains throughout Utah County and elsewhere. They serve in hospitals, care facilities, through hospice, with troubled youth and more.

Ronda Walker Weaver has served as a chaplain for seven years. She serves at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo and at Cirque Lodge in Orem. She visits patients and was recently put in charge of developing a diversity program for the medical center.

“My heart is with visiting patients,” Weaver said.

The one thing Weaver wants to make perfectly clear is she and other female chaplains aren’t just visiting teachers with a cause. They must have a master’s degree in a related field to even enter into the chaplaincy program and become board certified.

“Before becoming a clinical chaplain the student is required to study 1,600 hours in a year’s time,” Weaver said. “That equals another master’s degree and specialty certification.”

Chaplains certify through the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy with certification in Clinical Pastoral Education.

Weaver said she hasn’t been given any grief about being an LDS woman chaplain and is thrilled the LDS Church gives its approval.

It was just this past June when the church officially announced it has approved the centralized endorsement of all chaplaincies, including female chaplains. It was reiterated at the chaplains’ seminar and training that runs in tandem with the October General Conference of the LDS Church.

Alie Valencia is an LDS psychotherapist who works with Utah County Substance Abuse. She has been a chaplain for five years. As a therapist and a chaplain, Valencia said she can help people with all areas of their recovery.

“As a chaplain I can bring the spiritual aspect back into patients’ lives,” Valencia said.

Valencia said with both disciplines she can help people change and become better husbands and fathers, and find general happiness and peace in this life.

“They get to know who they are and that they are good,” Valencia said.

That is the reward of chaplaincy: service and knowing they are making a difference in the spiritual well-being of people’s lives.

Sue Bergin has been a chaplain for the past eight years. She works with Encompass Home Health and Hospice.

“I get to use my whole being, my experiences, my losses,” Bergin said. “I am a champion of women.”

Working on the hospice side is always intense and emotional, particularly when it’s a child who is in need, Bergin said.

“Chaplaincy training teaches you you’re there with the parents intensely,” Bergin said.

Bergin works with Anne Spackman, who has served for three years as a chaplain. While not LDS, Spackman is an Interfaith Minister and works side-by-side with LDS chaplains.

Spackman, like many of the LDS women who are serving, said she was drawn toward chaplaincy after her experience with hospice when her mother was in need and dying.

“There was a feeling of being called,” Spackman said. “This is where I need to be. I was drawn to service and how to put it into actuality.”

Spackman said she is very aware of the different religious needs of groups and people and how they receive service.

“If I’m with an LDS family there is no way I would want to take away [help] from the ward family,” Spackman said.

On the other hand, she also said what we experience is universal and not just confined to one religion.

“The nature of chaplains is very neutral,” said Weaver, echoing Spackman’s point. “Our job is to facilitate.”

For seven years, Mary Shaw has been serving and facilitating as a chaplain working with at-risk children. She started her service in California. The desire to serve was sparked when a friend of hers, a young mother, lost her child.

Shaw said she studied how to talk with her friend and enjoyed helping. She also felt a sort of spiritual calling.

“I discovered chaplaincy at Stanford as a patient,” Shaw said. “I was so excited.”

Shaw works with children whose lives have been affected by suicide and has helped at Canary Garden, a place of healing in Provo for friends and family of suicide.

Charn Burton said becoming a chaplain was also a sort of spiritual calling. It happened a number of years after her son took his life when he was 18.

She serves as a chaplain at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem.

“Chaplaincy has made me look at my spiritual growth in depth,” Burton said. “I’ve not always been a rebel. I believe you have to know others’ beliefs too. You do study to be a good chaplain. People don’t know what spiritual care takes.

“I love to know people — everything about them — so I’m able to get in and have a good talk with them when they are struggling.”

The one thing all these women believe and encourage is the opportunity for service is endless.

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