Back to Interviews

LaVerne Gill


Author Interview with LaVerne Gill

LaVerne Gill received a 2012 Pastoral Study Project grant for her project: Faith Formation and Kidney Transplantation: A Pastoral Counseling Manual and Website. Her research resulted in the book “Faith and Kidney Disease: Prayers, Meditations and Other Spiritual Disciplines For People with Kidney Disease” published in 2013.

LI: Tell us about yourself and your ministry.

LG: I generally refer to myself as a “retired clergy person” – obviously there is no such thing. After nine years as a full-time pastor in Webster township, just north of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I began a ministry as the United Church of Christ Chaplain at Chautauqua Institute, in New York. Although it was a summer position, much of the planning took place in fall and winter.

I retired from my full time ministry in Michigan because I was feeling ill. I did not know how ill I really was, but I knew my stamina was diminishing. In 2008, I took my last trip to Ghana, West Africa, where I had led church mission trips for eight years. What had been a pleasant and rich spiritual experience turned out to be a physically grueling trip.

The Chautauqua summers that followed were filled with varying degrees of angst and illness. By my fourth summer my nephrologist (kidney specialist) told me that I was in the fourth stage of End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD). I would need dialysis or a kidney transplant within six months to a year.

My five-year commitment to Chautauqua had to be cut short. Before notifying the board of directors, I told the chair of the personnel committee Patricia Hanberry, wife of a UCC clergy colleague, and God’s providence became evident. Pat offered to donate her kidney. This incredible act of generosity led to us entering the operating room just five months later in November 2010. Pat and I tell the full story my book Faith and Kidney Disease.

My ministry now involves telling this story of God’s providence and grace in the book, at churches, and educating and counseling people about ESRD.

LI: What core question/concern guided your Pastoral Study Project?

LG: During my journey with ESRD, the need for pastoral care focused on this particular illness became clear. Even though I am clergy and my donor is married to a pastor, we both felt that our spiritual journeys during this period could benefit from pastoral care that included insight into our situation — hers as a donor and mine as the recipient.

After the successful surgery, I began to reflect on my spiritual growth and looked at what spiritual disciplines did or could have provided guidance and comfort during those difficult days of discernment, discomfort, and dismay.

The Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project grant offered the opportunity to look beyond my personal spiritual journey and to research the connection between spirituality and health. In particular, I wanted to know how to incorporate the best practices of pastoral counseling and what is known in health care about the spiritual experiences of people with ESRD or similar prognoses to affect better health outcomes and strengthen faith.

After completing the research, I decided to organize the resulting product as a book and structure it around the teaching elements used by Jesus in his ministry: storytelling, prayer, meditation, scripture reading and the creation of a faith community. I published Faith and Kidney Disease using the not-for-profit organization I established to further the message about kidney disease: Faith Formation and Kidney Disease Institute, Inc. This is the first book in a three-part series to address the role of faith in healing.

LI: What would you like us to know about your book Faith and Kidney Disease?

LG: Faith and Kidney Disease will find its most potent response in people who have kidney disease and are either on dialysis or have had a kidney transplant, as well as those who are anticipating organ donation.

The opening chapter features four first-person narratives: two dialysis patients, my transplant story and the faith journey of my kidney donor. All four began their sacred stories in 2010 and each chronicles the faith formation or lack thereof during an encounter with ESRD. Pastoral care and other care givers can glean insight from these stories into how best to minister to people with kidney disease and other similar prognoses.

The chapters that follow provide prayers of various types and case studies using spiritual direction to aid in faith formation. People with terminal diagnoses such as ESRD or cancer have two prominent thoughts: Has my life had meaning? What is beyond life? No matter how far or near death might be, the diagnosis begins the mind’s journey in search of answers to these questions.

Faith and Kidney Disease describes spiritual disciplines based on the ministry of Jesus to help the patient gain a more intimate relationship with God. I attempted to make the book readable and user-friendly, inviting readers to pace themselves according to their own phase in faith formation.

The blessing of the Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project grant made this atypical research possible. Rarely do clergy have an opportunity to reflect, explore and document religious experiences and disseminate them for the benefit of the faith community. A blessing indeed!