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'Spiritual Care Speaks a Language of Meaning and Purpose'

'Spiritual Care Speaks a Language of Meaning and Purpose'

Tuesday July 31 2018



Jackie Macadam learns more about a Church of Scotland chaplain at the heart of Scotland’s health care.


“I had a sense that I wished to pursue a vocation in ministry from an early age, and at the age of 18 began my Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Edinburgh.”

The Rev Sheila Mitchell is talking about her years as a minister and her work in the NHS as Programme Director for Health and Social Care Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care.

“I was interested in chaplaincy work in general from a very early stage – I think because I could see the connection between theory, theology and practice very clearly. I pursued this area of work in my Masters degree which I completed again at Edinburgh University. During my time as a student, I spent time in general hospitals and in mental health units, and then during my time as a parish minister in South Lanarkshire in the 1990s, I worked as a part time chaplain in a hospital for people with mental health problems and/or learning disabilities. I come from a family in which there are a number of healthcare professionals, so the world of health was, to some extent, at least partly familiar.”

Sheila says: “I was born in Edinburgh to Aberdonian parents, but the Isle of Arran – where I went to school – has been home and/or my place of ‘anchorage’ for the vast majority of my life.”

Sheila adds: “My family has had long-standing connections with the Church of Scotland, both on Arran and elsewhere, but over the years I have had connections with the Methodist Church and with the Church of England as well. “

Working as part of the NHS was then almost a natural progression career-wise when the opportunity came along.

“Very often chaplains have the privilege of being with people at the very worst times in their lives – and sometimes at the very best. And of course, many occasions are inevitably bitter-sweet. Some of the most moving and rewarding things that stand out in my mind have been arranging and conducting emergency weddings or blessings for couples, one of whom is terminally ill. So often everyone involved goes the extra mile to make sure that the occasion has as much dignity, sense of intimacy and even celebration that the circumstances will allow,” says Sheila.

But her work includes some planning and strategic working as well.

“As Programme Director I manage the Person Centred Care Programme within NHS Education for Scotland (NES), one of NHS Scotland’s ‘special’, or non-territorial, health boards. NES supports the educational and training needs of the wider workforce within NHS Scotland, which includes work relating to the development spiritual care as a healthcare profession.

Sheila adds: “Today the NHS recognises that people are more than a collection of disorders and ailments; they are more than a set of symptoms or problems waiting for a diagnosis or intervention. Today we recognise that there’s greater awareness of the links between such things as poverty, education, social isolation and health. The tragedy is that sometimes we have inequalities in health provision, access and uptake that limit or compromise people’s health and overall sense of wellbeing, but conversely our understanding of health and healing is increasingly holistic, where the growing importance of the interaction of body, mind and spirit are both acknowledged and accepted – and surely this shift in understanding can only be positive and life-enhancing.

“Spiritual care speaks a language of meaning and purpose, and the NHS in Scotland affirms that things fundamental to human living - such as meaning and purpose, belonging and hope, ritual and remembrance, accompaniment and journeying, reflection and wonder, all have a place in modern healthcare provision.”

After 22 years connected to the NHS working in hospitals and latterly for NHS Education for Scotland, Sheila will shortly be pursuing a very different role. “I’m delighted to say that I've just accepted a call to a parish in rural Aberdeenshire. I’m looking forward to the move very much, and to the many and varied opportunities that lie ahead. While there’s much that I’ll miss about the culture, work and colleagues within the NHS, I know there’s a huge amount to embrace in a forward-looking, warm and welcoming congregation and parish.

“Whoever takes over from me will find the task not without its challenges, but immensely and richly rewarding. I've been blessed and extremely fortunate to have been a part of the story of the NHS.”