Ridgeway Addison: What's the role of a theologian in a nursing school?

Blurry photo of a busy hospital Emergeny Room

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Theological education is invaluable to those who suffer and care for the suffering, says a professor of theology who teaches nursing students.

In order to help nursing students process painful emotions when dealing with illness and death, Georgetown University’s School of Nursing & Health Studies hired a theologian, the Rev. Dr. Ridgeway Addison.

Addison’s courses on health care ethics and the problem of suffering are designed to give students an “experiential hold on how spirituality can be a resource for their patients” as well as their own development as caregivers.

And the learning goes both ways: Addison values the practical focus that students bring to his classes. Their need for real-life application keeps him accountable to “holistic integration of learning and life,” he said.

“These experiences remind me regularly that ministry is related to the whole person and push me toward a larger scope of what health and wholeness means,” he said. 

Ridgeway AddisonAddison currently serves as an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown’s School of Nursing & Health Studies. Previously, he served as a Protestant chaplain to the law and medical schools at Georgetown and full-time faculty from 2012 to 2015. He is an ordained Baptist minister associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists and holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Catholic University of America.

Addison spoke with Faith & Leadership about his ongoing work at Georgetown and what it means for the church. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What do you enjoy about your teaching in a nursing school?

I get to be a theologian and a spirituality specialist with an office surrounded by nurses and physicians and health care scholars. I love teaching in a nursing and medical school, because everything always has to be applied to practice.

Theology for me is always applied, and I was able to orient my teaching as a conversation between what the students knew about health studies and what I knew about theology.

I tell my graduate nursing students especially that they must focus on that middle space between being a scholar and a practitioner.

I’ve always thought about how my experience as a chaplain impacted my care for someone in the hospital, my experience as a pastor impacted my care for someone in a congregation, as well as how my own health history impacted how I teach and mentor my nursing students.

I need to let the students know that these classes on theology and ethics are not just words that I, as a theologian, can talk about. They’re going to be able to apply what I teach when they are caring for a patient who’s suffering with news that their child will be stillborn or a patient who is coping with a diagnosis for a terminal illness.

Being scholar-practitioners means holistic integration of learning and life -- really being well trained, really knowing something and really being able to verbalize it in their own lives and jobs. Aiming for that integration has held me accountable.

I get to help students find bridges to apply their in-class learning to their practice as they care for people. How they continue to self-reflect as they’re maturing as caregivers is remarkable. It’s one of my favorite things to see.

Q: You’re the first theologian at Georgetown’s School of Nursing & Health Studies. Why bring a theologian into a nursing school?

I think the reasoning was for both the nursing students and the faculty. Nursing students have some difficult experiences to process. They work with cadavers and have to think about what it means to come into contact with humanity post-mortem.

Some of this experience was difficult simply on a clinical level, but when they’d find out the cause of death which sometimes had to do with what a family member of theirs had died from or dealt with, anatomy lab became really personal. Those kinds of difficult experiences created some therapeutic needs for the students themselves.

To address that need, Dr. Carlous Suárez-Quian, a professor at Georgetown Medical School, started inviting chaplains to drop by the open anatomy lab. The interactions were meaningful, and Georgetown saw a need for some more pastorally focused support at a teaching level for our students.

That’s really the whole purpose of bringing a spirituality guy into the nursing department. It wasn’t for the students just to learn theory; it was to really give them that experiential hold on how spirituality can be a resource for their patients and also their development as caregivers.

But second, Georgetown felt that bringing in a theologian was worth it not just for the students but also for the faculty and staff. We do a good job at Georgetown with the integration of Jesuit values, but I think the faculty felt they could be more equipped to leverage that rich tradition in the way that they practice with a theologian in-house.

Q: You have a class on the problem of suffering and religious perspectives. How do students react to the class?

Well, the first thing is they’re always interested in the class. Most of my students are from Abrahamic traditions, even though they might not have a self-professed faith in a tradition.

Whenever we get into Hindu or Buddhist perspectives on suffering, they’re really curious. Some of them find Buddhism attractive with respect to theodicy, because it can relate to lived life and practical reality rather than getting stuck in dogma or doctrine, at least in the way that I lay it out for them.

The majority of them aren’t ready at this point to say, at least in a group of their peers, that they absolutely feel like the tradition they profess or claim -- even if that tradition is secularism -- has the sufficient answers for dealing with suffering. But they are really interested in looking for answers.

Q: The Rev. Sarah Coakley has said that theologians shouldn’t underestimate learning from patients in the hospital context. How do you think working in this context has influenced your own work as a theologian or ordained minister?

I teach students who are literally walking into my class in scrubs or are going to run to clinicals right after my class ends. I teach from a variety of medical and nursing journals about things that have nothing to do with theological words but everything to do with what theology is about: caring for people, being present and living in a transformative relationship with God.

These experiences remind me regularly that ministry is related to the whole person and push me toward a larger scope of what health and wholeness means.

My work as an educator of health care students convinces me that churches have to care about all of life. Local congregations need workshops on living wills and on blood pressure. This is not an aside to what’s going on in Sunday worship. These things are essential to what it means to have abundant life.

My teaching has really impressed and humbled me by showing how theology is limited if we don’t include medicine and health care in our concern.

Q: As you’ve worked in this interdisciplinary position, what are some ways you feel that your work as a theologian has uniquely served the nursing school?

In the caring professions, we sometimes don’t really know what to do with spirituality and theology. I think that’s mainly from an administrative and faculty perspective. The students are interested, and they really understand the need for more holistic care, including spirituality.

I think that some of that is generational. My students just have a more integrated way of looking at all of their culture, politics and spirituality in ways that my colleagues might struggle to automatically conceptualize.

Second, I’ve had my own health issues, and I often share about that in my last lecture for the class on the problem of suffering. I talk about my own history with depression, including getting formally diagnosed in my 30s.

Sometimes I’ll even bring in my prescription bottle on the last day of class and talk about how both my faith and my medication are vital for my life and well-being.

A couple of my students actually have reached out to me and said, “Professor Addison, thank you so much for sharing that. We’ve heard so much about the suffering of the world and of our patients, and so much about how vulnerable it is to be a patient and to deal with stuff. But not many of our other professors, even our clinical advisers, have shared their own stories with us.”

Sometimes in places of higher education, we are taught to put on masks of perfection or flawlessness, but I try to tell my students that the better they can fully accept themselves -- emotionally, intellectually and relationally -- the better care they can take of themselves and their patients going forward.

That’s something really special that I feel I’ve been able to contribute.

Q: Your work also crosses boundaries, not just in terms of doing theology in nursing and medicine, but you have also chosen to work in between Christian traditions -- namely, as a Baptist in a Catholic institution. Why?

I was raised and confirmed Methodist, went to a conservative Presbyterian college, went to a progressive Baptist seminary, and then got my Ph.D. from Catholic University of America.

Then I got a job at Georgetown. Even for a non-Catholic, there is something about the Jesuit notion of spirituality and daily life that influences the campus. The emphasis on being a contemplative in action is an ethos that is alive on campus almost physically. It promotes spirituality in everyone.

As for why: I like working at the intersection. My wife, who is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, often refers to me as a “Jesuit Baptist.” I’ve always been very ecumenical and intersectional at heart.

I love being part of conversations between traditions.

I like to make sure that my voice isn’t the only one in the room. It helps me know God better, and I think it also helps me be a better professor and theologian.