Vanderbilt Health Total Health (VTH) began a pilot this summer with Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). The new solution offers a faster, more convenient way for employees to get care when and where they need it throughout the Vanderbilt Health System.
Jess Hansen is the chaplain for VTH, supporting patients with both spiritual and emotional care to cope with issues at all stages of life, regardless of their spiritual or religious beliefs and practices.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she also played basketball. Hansen holds a master’s degree in teaching from George Fox University in Oregon and Master of Divinity from North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. She taught high school social studies for 11 years in Chicago and Nashville. A trained spiritual director who completed a 16-month residency as an interfaith hospital chaplain, Hansen joined VTH in March 2023.
Hansen answered a few questions for Employer Insights:
Why did you decide to pursue a career as a chaplain?
I had a circuitous route to chaplaincy. For 11 years prior to this role, I was a high school social studies teacher. I taught for six years on the west side of Chicago, and then came to Nashville and taught five years at Pearl-Cohn High School. I consider these years of teaching as my first chaplaincy of sorts. Chaplaincy for me is an extension of my work in education—both involve caring for souls.
I always have had a fascination with how we shape and mature as people, especially how that happens in a spiritual sense. For me, so much of my own personhood has been formed and shaped by my queer identity, by being a female within organized religion and, because my parents are from Denmark, by being a first-generation American. Though I have never fit the boundaries of a narrow faith tradition, I wanted to pursue a Master of Divinity degree because I am so interested in how I can walk alongside people in their spiritual healing and formation process.
What was the journey like to get your MDiv?
It took me seven years to finish my MDiv because I was working full-time while pursuing the degree. I stepped out of the classroom in the spring of 2019 to do my hospital residency, much of which I did during the height of pandemic. A large part of my residency involved clinical pastoral education where I was trained on how to listen and hold space for people during difficult times. Becoming a chaplain during the pandemic, when we had a lot of deaths and grief around COVID, was challenging.
What are some misconceptions people sometimes have about chaplaincy?
Even in a hospital setting, we'll often get a confused look when we ask if a patient wants to talk to a chaplain. They’re worried that there’s something that they don't know, like, “Am I dying?” Everybody in the hospital is in some kind of crisis, perhaps wrestling with questions about life they normally wouldn’t, but we often don’t know what to ask for in these times of fear, confusion, grief and frustration.
Maybe what we need is “spiritual first aid,” as one of my chaplain friends describes it. A chaplain is somebody who can hold a safe space and listen deeply so that the other person knows that they're not alone. Chaplains are trained to extend human empathy and compassion—regardless of your faith tradition or spirituality—because we know that is a huge part of what helps us heal. Chaplains are interested in the wholeness and integration of your personhood, so we want to create space for you to come into a better and more intimate relationship with yourself and, often, with a higher power.
Sometimes we just need somebody to slow down enough to honor and witness our struggles. A chaplain can provide that witness.
You’re also a spiritual director—what does that mean?
Part of my degree was to get trained as a spiritual director, which I have been doing for about six years now. I think spiritual direction and chaplaincy are extensions of the classroom educator role in many ways.
Spiritual direction is a form of spiritual companionship. It’s sort of a step below therapeutic counseling. It takes the form of listening very actively and reflectively to see where a person’s spiritual life is connecting to other parts of their life. It’s less directing and more spiritual accompaniment.
The practice comes out of the Catholic tradition, but you see it in all sorts of faith traditions. It's been on a rise in the last 15 to 20 years.
Have you seen an uptick of interest in spiritual direction since the pandemic?
Certainly. People felt unsettled through the pandemic. I think the past three years have also been challenging for those who grew up in a certain faith tradition; these people wanted a safe space to question, deconstruct and unpack their traditions and identities. As a queer spiritual director, I have worked with people who are trying to integrate faith with their sexual identity. I'm very grateful to be able to provide a safe space for people.
Why did you want to take this role with VTH?
I had been talking to Andy Peterson, MMHC, MDiv, Director of Pastoral Care and Volunteer Services at Vanderbilt Health, about this partnership with VTH and MNPS. I’m very familiar with the stresses and beauty of the role of being a classroom teacher. This role with VTH brings together so many things that I love.
When I was teaching at Pearl-Cohn, my amazing colleagues and I helped each other survive what is a very challenging job. I led a monthly small group where we met after school and decompressed. It was spiritually based, and I brought in contemplative and mindfulness practices to create a healing space. It's always been a part of my heartbeat. So, when this job with VTH came up, I was excited about it because I wanted to provide opportunities and access for classroom teachers to heal and take care of their spiritual lives, which is so much a part of overall health.
People who become educators often feel teaching is something they’re supposed to do—it's a part of who they are. A lot of teachers will use the language of “it’s a calling.” Whether you ascribe to that wording or not, many people believe that teaching is closely tied to their core identity. What drew me to this role was the empathy and the compassion I felt after experiencing that world. I still have so many friends in the classroom, as well as an older sister who teaches fifth grade in Oregon. Watching these friends and family teach through the pandemic, I realized healing spaces were needed for them then, and even more now.
What are some of the kinds of spiritual needs that are not getting met? What would have helped you?
Compassion fatigue is a big thing—the day in and day out emotional expenditure of educating is hard and intense. Teachers pour so much of themselves into these little souls, whose needs can be so high that the job can feel unsustainable. So much is demanded of classroom teachers; how do they carry that every day?
We all know the saying: You can't give from an empty cup. But to recognize when you’re empty and exhausted? To find ways to pour back into yourself with good self-care practices? That takes a community.
What are some of teachers’ biggest spiritual issues?
One of big things that educators must hold is grief. It's a hard thing to be a teacher and grieve. I lost a handful of students to gun violence when I was an educator, and I experienced my fair share of secondary trauma through my students, too. That’s something you carry in and out of the classroom. And we live in a world where students are not as safe as we would like them to be. And life is hard. Chronic illnesses, terminal cancer, caring for elderly parents, friend and family deaths—grief directly impacts our ability to come into a classroom and show up for our kids. How one holds grief, processes losses and integrates grief involves our spirituality.
So I'm excited that in some way we are giving educators the space to deal with these difficult times. VTH acknowledges that these spiritual challenges have an impact, and we’re here to help educators process their grief.
What is more, because being an educator is often times so deeply connected to a teacher’s identity, it can be hard to wrestle with a sense of disillusionment and discouragement when the job gets hard. This, too, involves one’s personhood and spirituality.
If someone were to call VTH nurse navigator Yolonda Powell and say, “I'm really struggling and I need to talk to someone,” what would the next step look like?
It could take various forms, depending on Yolonda’s discernment of exactly what this person needs. If someone had a hard week or found out some tough news and needed to process through it with somebody, Yolonda might connect that person with either Tyler Banks, the VTH social worker, or me. If someone were struggling with identity issues or spiritual concerns, Yolonda might connect that person with me for a 30-minute virtual appointment. VTH could even deploy a team of chaplains if something dramatic were to happen and they were needed on site.
In the future, we are planning to support educators with group classes. One class would be a spiritual decompression group—a safe space for educators to process difficult issues and find community. Another class would be a “Sustain You” series to help educators learn and build mindfulness practices to help them care for themselves.
What’s exciting about working on the VTH team?
Whether you're in a school, hospital or other medical setting, the more collaborative we can be about care, the better it is. So, I'm excited to be part of a team with Yolonda and Tyler, two very compassionate individuals. My spiritual conversations with teachers might be very different than their mental and physical conversations with Tyler or Yolonda, but we’re a team. We build bridges for people that span physical, mental and spiritual care. Our mental and emotional states have a huge impact on our physical health, and you can’t separate them. I’m so excited to work on a team providing educators with easy access to whole health services. I wish this program were available in every school district.