The Rev. Lee Whitting (left) meets with reporters Tuesday outside Eastern Maine Medical Center to protest the elimination of a paid chaplaincy program at the hospital. Shannon Denbow (right) came to support Whitting whom she met in 2004 while a patient. Credit: Judy Harrison

Eastern Maine Medical Center’s decision to stop paying any of its chaplains triggered a small protest outside the hospital Tuesday afternoon.

The Rev. Lee Whitting, a part-time chaplain there for 15 years, said the transition to an all-volunteer program will leave patients and their families underserved.

“The hospital is cutting out a key program that cannot be made up for with volunteers,” he said. “The chaplain is part of the trauma team. We can be in the emergency exam room. We deal with the patients and their families. Chaplains also help staff going through a crisis.”

Whitting was joined at 1 p.m. by a half-dozen people holding signs on State Street that said “Support Chaplains.”

Shannon Denbow, 38, of Bangor said she was protesting alongside Whitting because in 2004 he helped her after the death of a premature infant.

“As a chaplain, he really helped me through that difficult time,” she said. “Who now will help people who don’t have a minister through the loss of a baby? Who will baptize that baby when parents need it? What these guys do as chaplains really impacts the wellbeing of patients.”

The decision to eliminate paid chaplains appears to stem from the financial problems of EMMC’s parent company, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. In June, Moody’s Investors Service lowered its rating to junk bond status, reflecting lower confidence that the network will be able to pay back its debt that totaled $393 million, the Bangor Daily News reported.

The chaplain program has had a full-time director, the Rev. Rex Garrett, 70, of Holden and two-part time chaplains. It will become an all-volunteer program at the end of this month, according to Helen McKinnon, EMMC’s vice president for support services. McKinnon said she does not know how much money will be saved by the switch.

Whitting, 74, of Penobscot, who works 20 hours a week, and Rev. Art Gowie, 72, of Bangor, who works 28 hours a week, are being let go.

Garrett, who has been a chaplain at the hospital for more than 31 years, will retire but continue to volunteer and to run the hospital’s chaplain-training program as a volunteer, he said.

Director of Communications Tricia Denham said that EMMC “does not release individual department-level finances” and declined to release the chaplain program’s budget.

Whiting estimated program has cost $200,000 a year.

The director of Patient Experience will coordinate chaplain services once Garrett retires and will continue to work with the chaplaincy advisory council, a group made up of Bangor area clergy, McKinnon said.

Over the years, Garrett has kept updated a list of on-call volunteers that includes Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, Catholic and Episcopal priests as well as Protestant ministers from most denominations represented in Maine. They are expected to continue to volunteer.

“The service level won’t change,” McKinnon said. “Going to a total volunteer model is not uncommon throughout the country.”

That is not the trend nationally for large trauma hospitals that serve large geographic areas like EMMC does, according to a spokesman for the National Association of Professional Chaplains.

“I can safely say that this is not a trend we are seeing,” Kimberly Murman, president, said Tuesday. “We are an organization that is well dispersed across the country with over 5,000 members. Nowhere do we know of the type of wholesale contraction described by Eastern Maine Medical Center.

“While there have always been variances in any local job market, we are unaware of any common development for larger hospitals to eliminate professionally staffed Spiritual Care departments and transition to volunteer departments,” Murman said.

She added that “the APC job posting board has seen no decline in hospitals seeking professional chaplains.”