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Sold-out Crowd at 2014 Spiritual Care Symposium

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Spirituality is like an onion. At least, according to Ken Pargament, PhD, who spoke to a sold out crowd at Walla Walla General Hospital on January 17 for the 4th Annual Spiritual Care Symposium that explored integrated spirituality into caregiving. As a long-time professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University and one of the world’s leaders in the field of spirituality and mental health, Pargament knows that the onion is a good metaphor for spirituality.

What he didn’t know, until the moment he uttered that phrase, was just how appropriate the metaphor was for the receptive crowd before him about to have lunch in a town famous for its sweet onions. Laughter filled the diverse audience of nurses, professors, psychotherapists, clergy, chaplains, police officers, EMTs and life-long learners, all of whom gathered in Walla Walla from places like Wenatchee, Spokane, Moses Lake, Tri-Cities, Hermiston and the Walla Walla Valley.

As Pargament went on to explain, not only is spirituality like an onion – layered, complex and able to integrate the different elements of our lives and who we are into a complete whole, but it is also a way of seeing or perceiving life, a magnet drawing us in new directions, an organizing force making sense of life, a stream that naturally flows and adapts, and finally, spirituality can be both “good and bad”.

With the last conceptualization of spirituality, Pargament moved from metaphor to statement as he began to address a burgeoning area of new research related to spiritual struggles. While the vast majority of research over the years has shown that spirituality contributes positively both to physical and mental health, spiritual struggles, if they are not attended to constructively, can actually lead to a shorter life expectancy and a host of harmful coping behaviors. That’s where the clinical imperative to care for the whole person in a skilled and sensitive way comes from, says Pargament.

After a tasty lunch filled with bustling conversation, participants returned to the hospital auditorium where Pargament moved the conversation from conceptualization to concrete tools. While offering a host of explicit and implicit ways to assess and address a person’s spiritual issues, Pargament kept encouraging participants, both through his instruction and example to “listen to the stories”. Rather than separating conversations with clients into defined secular and spiritual sections, it’s more important, he states, to listen to the story. Caregivers should see spirituality, both in conversation and in the person’s life, as an interactive part of the whole.

As the day came to a close and people continued to gather in conversation, one participant articulated the sentiment felt by many, “Such a great speaker! So uplifting. Great humor and insights. I am so glad I came!”

Next year’s symposium is scheduled for January 30 and will feature Thomas R. McCormick, DMin, senior lecturer emeritus in the medical history and ethics department at the University of Washington in Seattle. He will speak about the merging of bioethics, culture and spirituality.