Faith Leaders and End-Of-Life

Faith leaders need to reclaim their place in provide solace at the end of life.

Posted Sep 29, 2013

Although we assume that faith leaders are experts in dealing with death, we might be surprised to find that they are not at all that comfortable with the topic. In master of science unpublished research conducted by three separate gerontology students at SDSU, we find that across all religions, faith leaders are poorly trained in end-of-life issues. Most faith leaders reported little to no formal training, and even those that have been exposed to some training admitted that they are ill-equipped to deal with end-of-life issues of their followers. And this finding was consistent for all religions studied.

We find the same story in other research. In a 2008 report by the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life they also reported that faith healers were least comfortable and least prepared working with children, health care providers and providing grief support when death is unexpected. As you would expect, faith leaders reported being more comfortable with the rituals of their religion than with initiating discussions on end-of-life issues or training others to provide such support.

Kaye Norris and her colleagues, reported similar results from two separate 1997 studies. One is a Gallup survey which describes how people may not always receive the level of support and spiritual care they desire, which is not surprising since respondents in the survey also reported low expectations of clergy. This finding was supported by a survey from Missoula community--68 percent describing themselves as religious or spiritual--that reported that people as they near life's end, are more likely to rely for support on in order of importance; a spouse, children, immediate family members or relatives, friends and than on a faith-leader or faith community.

Faith leaders' lack of education and training about end-of-life issues and grief counseling is an obstacle that prevents them from being more effective support to the dying and the bereaved. The surprise in the research is that all faiths seem to lack end-of-life training.

But at least the issue surrounding end-of-life has entered into a discussion. Especially around the highly divisive issue of assisted end-of-life. Some religions embrace the option. Such as the Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Methodists, Mainline and Liberal Christian denominations, Episcopalian (Anglican) Unitarian, Methodist, Presbyterian and Quaker movements. Even the American Baptists Churches--in contrast to the Southern Baptist Convention--support the right to decide.

It is not that we should completely eliminate religion from any discussion relating to discourse about social issues as Sam Harris crudely argues in the 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. We need religion because people expect their religion to console them in moments of need. The issue is that with the medicalization of death there is a passive acceptance by faith-leaders that death is a medical event rather than a spiritual journey. They need to reclaim their right. They must however first re-learn about the complex issues surrounding end-of-life.

© USA Copyrighted 2013 Mario D. Garrett

More Posts