An Interview with Beth Reece

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism


Dr. Knight: You are the chaplain at Shirley Ryan Ability Lab connected with Northwestern Hospital. Could you describe the process of becoming a chaplain?

Beth Reece: First of all, just to clarify, the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab is its institution. We take patients from NMH, but also other hospitals around the city, state, country, and from 50 foreign countries as well.


SRALAB has been innovative since its beginnings. “Founded in 1954, the Ability Lab is designed for patient care, education, and research in physical medicine and rehabilitation. It is a nationally ranked physical medicine and rehabilitation research hospital based in Chicago, Illinois.”[1]


With the advent of our new building two years ago, we became the first-ever “translational” research hospital where clinicians, scientists, innovators, and technologists work together in the same space, applying research in real time to physical medicine and rehabilitation.


Process of becoming a chaplain:


I think the process starts with a call, or a passion to serve others in some way. Of course, that can translate into many avenues of service, but one has to have that as a driving force before considering the path to chaplaincy.


The National Catholic Chaplain website describes it this way: Listening compassionately. Connecting immediately. Loving unconditionally. If this is how you envision your future, the National Association of Catholic Chaplains invites you to pursue a rewarding and faith-filled career as a professional chaplain.


Chaplains are professionals who provide spiritual and emotional support to people in many different settings. You’ll listen to people who are in a very vulnerable place. You’ll celebrate with families who received great news. As a chaplain, you will mark the beginning of lives, the end of lives and the many transforming moments in between.[2]


PREREQUISITES NECESSARY are

  • Be Roman Catholic or a member of one of the churches in union with Rome. For a complete church list, see www.archdiocesesantafe.org/Offices/Ecumenical/ChurchList.pdf. Please note that only members of churches on the first portion of the list, “Churches in union with Rome,” are eligible to apply for certification with the NACC. Ecclesiastical Endorsement is a requirement for certification and the NACC requests the Ecclesiastical Endorsement on your behalf after your application receives approval to move forward with an interview.

  • Have a completed graduate-level Theological Degree in theology, divinity, religious studies, pastoral ministry, pastoral studies, or spirituality from an accredited academic institution. For degrees in other related disciplines, please contact the Administrative Specialist, Certification at the National Office to confirm your degree meets the requirements of the NACC Standards, before entering the Certification Application process. The Certification Commission requires transcript analysis at the applicant’s expense for all degrees acquired outside the United States. Transcripts and analyses are to be sent directly from the institution(s) to the NACC and must be postmarked by the September 15 or February 15 postmark deadline for certification applications.

  • Have completed a Bachelor’s degree from a college, university, or theological school accredited by a member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org).

  • Have completed a minimum of four units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Commission on Certification and Accreditation (USCCB/CCA), or the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC/ACSS).

  • Be a Full Member of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC). To receive a Certification Application, you must have completed a Full Membership application and be current on your payment of annual Full Membership fees of $325. For a membership application, please click this link www.nacc.org/membership/apply-for-membership. For further inquiries regarding membership, please contact our Membership Specialist, Linda Yanasak at LYanasak@nacc.org


Candidates must demonstrate fulfillment of more than 30 competencies through an essay or patient case study, that involves 1. theory and practice,2. identity and conduct, for example, PIC1: Be self-reflective, including identifying one’s professional strengths and limitations in the provision of care. Or, PIC2: Articulate ways in which one’s feelings, attitudes, values, and assumptions affect professional practice. Other categories include 3. professional practice, and 4. organizational leadership. Also required are essays on personal spiritual journey and call, and theology of ministry.


Certification is determined through written materials (see CP131.3) and an in-person interview in which an Interview Team assesses the Applicant’s Competencies for certification.


It may seem like a long process, but all requirements are necessary equipping for such demanding, spiritual, relational work with patients who have received severe physical trauma.


Dr. Knight: You are the chaplain of a very prestigious institution what does that mean?


Beth Reece: It means there is a high standard of excellence. It means there is the impetus to be innovative, creative, always searching for the next discovery that will help patients move toward recovery. Being a chaplain in this environment means that our research into best practice for spiritual care and our interactions and interventions with patients must be innovative and excellent as well.


Dr. Knight: In other words what does being a chaplain entail? How would you encourage another to become a chaplain?


Beth Reece: If you think this is the direction of service you would like to pursue, I would suggest checking out the website: https://www.nacc.org/certification/board-certified-chaplain/, visiting other chaplains, understanding what the training and requirements will entail. Chaplaincy can be quite demanding, emotionally and spiritually draining work. You will be called out in the middle of the night for traumas in the emergency room, or to be with a patient who finds out they are terminal, or with a patient in great spiritual or emotional distress due to physical injury. And you will be called to accompany people through deep grief, hold grief rituals, provide prayer, celebrate a new birth. In other words, you will be called into the personal lives of people to provide whatever emotional, spiritual support might be needed at a moment’s notice. You will be called to the deep existential questions underneath religious practice that challenge faith like: Why did this happen to me? Why did God allow this? Where is God? Who am I now? How will I go on?


All chaplains will address and work with patients to recover in some way from what’s happened OR IS HAPPENING to them. According to Dr. Groopman, who wrote The Anatomy of Hope, “Trauma disconnects victims from those aspects of their being that can connect with life. The primary wound of trauma is one of disconnection…from self, body, other, life and God.” That’s a lot of disconnection. Part of our work is to remind people about who they are…identities have been lost, faith and beliefs shattered, hope gone, the future appears unimaginable. So chaplains start here. Providing a nonjudgmental, compassionate, loving presence is one of the greatest gifts you can give another.


Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a chaplain? How has this call changed over time?


Beth Reece: It wasn’t for me a specific call to chaplaincy exactly. I accepted a strong mandate from Jesus’ words to worship God with my heart, soul, and mind, and love my neighbor as myself. I realized that loving my neighbor wasn’t always about being nice or giving someone what they wanted. What was important was encouraging and empowering others toward the discovery of whatever God planned for them, to acknowledge the worth and dignity of anyone I ran into, no matter who. How could I do that? I started by taking a two-year course in Spiritual Direction, thinking that this would enable me to listen better to people. That led to the first unit of Chaplain Pastoral Education at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and then opened the door to pursue further training clinically, pastorally, and theologically. I received my M.Div from Loyola/IPS in 2010.


I have been serving as a chaplain since 2004. In that time, I’ve expanded my care of patients to include hospital staff, both clinical and support, increased opportunities to offer spiritual direction, weekend retreats, and research that furthers implementation of pastoral care, or affirms the need for spiritual care in a very physically oriented therapy environment.


Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how your Catholic faith plays into being a chaplain? what does that mean?


Beth Reece:: I am not Catholic, grew up Brethren, which is close to Mennonite, and after moving to Chicago, became Presbyterian. That may change what you want to do with this interview?? If so, I can recommend some certified Catholic chaplains for you to talk to. There is a wonderful one at Lurie Children’s Hospital.


Dr. Knight: How about an easy question: what is your favorite film at this time? Book?


Beth Reece: I like films that make me laugh or are mysteries that engage me and take me into another reality. This is probably a reaction to the serious work that I’m involved in. Reading fiction is a luxury for me, which I don’t have time for at the moment with all the research. However, here are some books which have been very helpful to the understanding of what trauma does to us, and how spiritual care support recovery: The Psychology of Hope by C. R. Snyder, In An Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine, The Anatomy of Hope by Jerome Groopman, Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.


Dr. Knight: You mostly work with individual people as a chaplain. What does the interaction mean to you??


Beth Reece: I always learn something from patients I visit. Sometimes I think they give more to me than I give to them. The experience of deep suffering and trauma has wisdom built into it. Maybe it’s the way God always is redeeming our experience. Helping patients find that wisdom to help with restoration is so meaningful. Every single room is its own story. Going into each room, inviting that story, listening with compassion, looking for how God might be present, or at work even amid terrible situations, is a very holy experience. I consider it a great privilege that patients offer this to chaplains!


Dr. Knight: As a chaplain, you can educate and spiritually form many people in society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart?


Beth Reece: Here’s a story for you: I was sitting with a patient in our chapel. We were in the midst of a ritual and blessing for limb loss. His legs were amputated due to complications with diabetes. During the ritual, I asked if he had anything to say. He began slowly….“Yes, I do. Being here has been a good experience. “The staff and the therapists have all helped me a lot, they’ve taken good care of me. But they don’t understand when I say that this (he gestures at his legs) is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Surprised, I asked, “Why do you say that?” And he replied, “Because I go home with a greater appreciation for my family and friends. I have survived! I feel that God has a purpose for me. My faith has grown. I have a new appreciation for how precious life is.”


He’s not the only patient to leave with spiritual and emotional healing in spite of physical trauma. I wondered why some patients were able to transcend their trauma and others not so much? Perhaps there were ways we could encourage this spiritual growth, transformation, transcendence among our patients. I began a self-study program at Loyola two years ago to pursue these questions and I found some answers. In the 1980s two psychology professors from the University of North Carolina, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, began asking the same question, “How can trauma upend everything someone knows about himself and force him to build a life with a new and larger sense of self?


Out of their research, and others before them, came some new cutting edge trends in mental health research… the positive psychology movement, recognition of the role of spirituality and religion in health and wellbeing, and stress-related growth. There was the acknowledgment that human beings have the capacity for transformation and growth even in the direst of circumstances. Although trauma disrupts survivor’s lives, the processes involved in confronting these disruptions may also promote broadened perspectives, new coping skills, and the development of personal and social resources. These positive changes in the aftermath of stressful life experiences came to be referred to as post-traumatic growth. Increased inner strength, openness to new possibilities in life, closer and deeper relationship with friends and family, enhanced appreciation for life, a stronger sense of spirituality.


As persons of faith, we know that this growth is possible. Jesus demonstrated it by his life, death, and resurrection for us. We know that God wants our flourishing. We know that God is present in our suffering. We know that we are deeply loved. And we know that God is always at work redeeming, restoring. However, that science is now affirming these deep truths of spirituality is a wonderful thing. It affirms and makes way for our work in new ways in the hospital environment.


Thousands of people were interviewed about how they survived the Holocaust, the Gulf Wars, Vietnam, 9/11, earthquakes, tidal waves, and many other traumatic events worldwide. People who recovered said there were a few tools that helped them: meaning-making and storytelling, community, hope, creativity, and faith or spirituality.

Chaplains can offer all these tools! We’ve been hard at work laying this grid over our practice at SRALAB, to help patients achieve spiritual and emotional healing that goes hand in hand with supporting physical recovery. But even as the patient I mentioned above goes home without the ability to walk, he goes home with joy, peace, a sense of connection with God and the world that he never had before his illness. While scientists name faith as one of the tools, I think faith intersects them all. As James Fowler observes in Faithful Change, faith is a dynamic, evolving pattern of the ways our souls find and make meanings for our lives. Patients will come to us with spiritual distress, asking the “why” questions, discouraged about their futures. But chaplains can use these tools to help patients find a way to higher ground.


Several studies have found a high correlation between religious faith and growth. Researchers found that those who reported the most positive changes also reported that they used religion as a way of coping with their cancer. One large review of 103 studies of post-traumatic growth found that religious coping was more often correlated with growth than most other attributes including community support or optimism—though those were not too far behind.[3] I find that incredibly encouraging to our work.


Dr. Knight: do you think that Art and Music assist people in getting to a more successful position in their illness? What are some of your favorite pieces that help people in their recovery?.


Beth Reece: As mentioned above, creativity is one of the tools of healing. Creativity in this context means an openness to change, a willingness to think differently, to craft a new future. While our organization provides many different kinds of art therapy, music therapy, pet therapy, etc., chaplains use creativity as well, in the different kinds of prayer and meditation offered, like Lectio Divina, the Examen, Guided Imagery, drawing a way through the labyrinth, writing in a journal, creating a picture in art therapy. We have many stories of how patients who’ve come in with a shaken and shattered faith due to illness or accident, have gone home with a new vibrant relationship with God and others that informs their physical recovery as well.


Dr. Knight Thank you for doing this interview to help all of us understand your work better and to live a life in Communion with Christ.



[1] Wikipedia

[2] https://www.nacc.org/about-nacc/choose-chaplaincy/

[3] Rendon, Jim, The New Science of Post Traumatic Growth.

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