Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran churches were at the forefront of modern hospital development. They based their endeavors on a long tradition of Christian investment in healthcare dating to the foundations of Roman and Byzantine Christianity.
Hospitals have always grown from a society’s health goals, science, economics and social conditions. They have also rested on the benevolence of religious people and conveyed hope for the healing of humankind. These grounds are being radically transformed today.
Hospital ministries were considered extensions of a denomination’s missionary outreach. Special donations and trustee leadership were virtuous endeavors.
Today, many hospitals still carry the names of their original denominational sponsors. Yet, the hospitals frequently have very limited accountability to the denomination.
Mergers occur and for-profit corporations buy Baptist hospitals, yet the name “Baptist” sometimes remains attached.
How can we ethically assess this situation? What are the ethics of naming?
Does having the word “Baptist” attached to a hospital bring certain expectations? A highly respected ethicist was once asked, “What makes a hospital Catholic?” He argued that charity, hospitality and a transformed experience of suffering should characterize the inner life of any hospital rooted in the Catholic teachings of Christ.
So what makes a hospital Baptist?
Theologian William McClendon described five key commitments that identify Baptist life: biblical authority, evangelism, liberty, discipleship and community. Evangelism is particularly relevant.
Evangelism is each believer’s and the community’s responsibility to witness to Christ, even when that witness appears odd to the culture or brings suffering to the one living the witness. The key practices of evangelism are mission and hospitality.
This distinctive should be evident in the mission and values statements of the organization and in daily practices.
I conducted a survey of 10 Baptist hospital Web sites to determine how they expressed notions of mission and hospitality. None of the sites made an overt connection to their Baptist heritage or sponsorship in their mission, values and vision statements.
They did write:
· “healing with Love in the Christian tradition,”
· having “a Christ centered mission,”
· providing “superior service based upon Christian values,”
· being “founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ,”
· being a faith-based organization “based in the Spirit of Jesus Christ,”
· living by “the principles embodied in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Three of the sites made no obvious theological or religious references.
This cursory survey cannot determine how the trustees, executives and administrators of these hospitals bring the mission of Christ to bear in particular circumstances.
Do they understand “the mission of Jesus Christ” to include the disenfranchised, “the least of these”? Do they have a meaning for “hospitality” different from customer service practices modeled after Disney’s entertainment leadership?
Do their decisions look any different from those who base their decisions on direct ecclesial oversight and doctrinal integrity (as might a Catholic hospital), on humanistic or political values (as might a public hospital), or on capitalistic principles (as might a proprietary hospital)?
The issue of mission may be particularly acute for the trustees. With the prevailing trend toward hospitals as primarily economic entities rooted in technology and science, how do the trustees express a different vision? Can “saving souls” remain core to their mission while excellence in “healing bodies” dominates?
How do trustees and executives maintain a moral commitment to transcendence in the face of science? To benevolence in the face of commercialism?
Do their choices ever appear “odd” to scientific and commercial interests? If they do not, are they Baptist?
Other ethical perspectives on the name Baptist also come into play. For example, nurses, physicians, hospital employees, patients and visitors exercise discipleship daily in the crucible of physical suffering. Do Baptist hospital practices support such discipleship in discernable ways?
If a hospital claims the name “Baptist,” it should welcome an ethical examination of how its life meets the challenges of evangelism and discipleship. The inevitable tension between a strong ethic of service and the fiduciary responsibility of trustees should constantly challenge their moral development.
The fragrance of the rose is its essence. The ethic of the hospital is its identity.
Steve Ivy is vice president for values, ethics, social responsibility and pastoral services of Clarian Health Partners in Indianapolis, Ind.