Supporting Spiritual Journeys

Towering above his colleagues at six-foot-seven inches tall, Father Christopher “Tyler” Whatley has an impressive view–both literally and figuratively.

“I knew I wanted to have my voice heard at the highest level,” he says. Based on his experience with a previous employer, he was looking for an opportunity to be a part of a strong, integrated Pastoral Care program. “I wanted to be sure that the faith perspective was being brought to the table in decision-making.”

In his role at Oakwood, Tyler serves as the Director of Religion and Pastoral Care. Tyler is looking to offer new possibilities for integrated spiritual care to Oakwood residents. To illustrate what that looks like in practice, Tyler gives an example from his previous work in a hospital.

“A podiatrist called me because he had a patient whose spouse had recently passed away. The patient was understandably overwhelmed and grieving. The podiatrist was unable to proceed with care because of the patient’s distress, so I went down and sat with him. I was able to calm him down and support him. We said a prayer together and then he was able to continue with his visit.”

Staff already know that pastoral support is crucial in times of emergent distress.

“It’s so important that we, as chaplains, are there in the hard times,” Tyler says. “But there’s [also] a bigger picture of institutional awareness of how to utilize us, and that’s what we’ll be bringing to Oakwood.”

Tyler is committed to bringing a new perspective to pastoral care.

“We have this bias that everyone’s intrinsically spiritual, meaning that humans are meaning-making beings. There’s an intangible part of us that gives and receives love, and we try to figure out where an individual derives meaning from, which is valuable information we can share with the care team.”

This doesn’t mean that his department is seeking to convert anyone, but rather to support them on their chosen spiritual journey.

“If someone tells us they’re not religious, or they’re atheist, we’ll take religion off the table,” Tyler explains. “Instead, we’ll talk about what sustains the individual, what's their purpose, and try to support them in that way."

Spiritual support from his team provides a holistic picture of an individual, just like social work and nursing, and for this reason, it’s important to have a Pastoral Care presence throughout the Oakwood community. What does this mean for residents at Oakwood?

“One of our goals is to have a chaplain present at every interdisciplinary meeting at Oakwood across the continuum,” Tyler says.

Although chaplains may not always have something specific to share, those meetings are a valuable place for them to receive referrals for people who need support.

Oakwood’s pastoral care department consists of three pastors. Tyler is of the Eastern Orthodox tradition; Nicole Espe, who serves the University Woods campus, is Lutheran; and Wayne Shannon, who serves the Prairie Ridge campus, is United Church of Christ. There's a high level of expertise in the department, with Tyler being a board-certified chaplain, and both Wayne and Nicole currently pursuing their certification.

“The clinical paradigm of chaplaincy does not mean that we’re doctors or psychologists,” Tyler states. “But ‘clinical’ means that we are accountable to the process of documenting our observations, our interventions and our outcomes, and having that paradigm in mind when speaking with a visitor or resident.”

Nonetheless, confidentiality remains a priority. Through training, our chaplains learn to differentiate between information that should be kept confidential versus that which is beneficial to the rest of the team.

The overall goal is to fully support the individual while honoring their privacy.

In addition to the integrated approach, the Pastoral Care department is developing initiatives to support Oakwood staff in a way that hasn’t been formalized before.

“We know we have staff who are burnt out, both in dealing with their own lives and the work they do at Oakwood,” Tyler explains. “We want staff to know they can trust us, and can come in and have confidential conversations and receive support right here.”

On the University Woods campus, a room in the Pastoral Care offices has recently transitioned to a lounge-like room, where residents, family members and staff can sit down, have a cup of coffee or tea and chat with one of the pastors.

When asked what has surprised him in his time at Oakwood thus far, Tyler spoke to the level of experience and expertise.

“There’s just so much insight and wisdom here. I’ve been surprised at just how much I’m growing and being molded through my interactions with residents.”

Share this Story with Your Friends and Family


Thanks for reading! This is just one of many articles from our Fall/Winter 2021 Outlook newsletter.

To read more from this issue, download the PDF by clicking the button below.