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Responding to a Childhood Call

After nearly four decades as a pastor, Jerry Newswander believes his baby sister’s death inspired his move to hospice chaplaincy.

When Jerry J. Newswander was 9, his sister Nancy died of a heart defect. She was 4 months old.

Newswander remembers the difficulty of grappling with a sibling’s death at such a young age. As he grew older, the moment inspired him to pursue a career helping others nearing the end of their lives.

“It was pretty tough at that early age to try to understand death,” says Newswander, 65. “I think that was the beginning of my chaplaincy.”

Newswander has developed that calling over 47 years. In 2010, he became a U.S. Missions chaplain working in hospice care after spending nearly four decades pastoring churches. He now works with Care Initiatives Hospice in West Des Moines, Iowa, as a spiritual care and bereavement counselor. He supports hospice patients and families in their private homes, plus patients, families, staff, and residents in long-term care facilities.

“When people hear the word hospice, they think about death,” Newswander says. “But our focus is on quality of life. God has called me to put my energies into people who are in the last stages of life, helping them to address issues that people just don’t want to talk about.”

After his sister’s death, Newswander wanted to become a doctor. But as he entered his late teenage years, he felt God’s tug to the ministry. He began attending Bethel Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Rock Island, Illinois, while dating his future wife, Linda.

In 1975, the newly married Newswanders moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he worked toward a Bible degree from Central Bible College, now part of Evangel University. Fourteen years later, while pastoring at Willard Assembly of God near Springfield, he earned his master’s degree in biblical literature with additional education in pastoral counseling and psychology from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. In 2010, he completed his clinical pastoral education at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines.

Newswander spent 38 years pastoring nine churches in four states. Most recently, he pastored more than eight years at Harvest Assembly of God in Huxley, Iowa. He stepped down in 2013 to fully focus on chaplaincy. Linda works as a respiratory therapist.

Throughout his career, Newswander often served as worship leader or sang solos in church. It’s an element he now incorporates into chaplaincy ministry. Newswander finds that singing to or with patients pacifies them.

“Singing has a medicinal effect,” he says. “I’ve seen dementia and other patients who are agitated and upset become calm after a few moments of singing to them.”

It’s also a way for him to share the gospel. Even if they don’t have a religious background, many patients are comfortable with “Amazing Grace, he says. The hymn carries the gospel message and can open doors to share more in depth, he says.

That’s an aspect of Newswander’s ministry that stands out to Phil E. Parker, an endorsed AG hospital chaplain with UnityPoint Health in Des Moines. Parker, who has known Newswander since 2005, says few chaplains are skilled enough to use music in their ministry.

“Music ministers to patients, helps to alleviate their stress, and helps them to enter the presence of God,” Parker says.

For those working every day with the dying or grieving, Newswander also attaches a high importance to self-care.

“If helpers can’t take care of themselves, then it’s very difficult to help anybody else,” Newswander says. He saw the need to change his own health habits and lost weight. He now says he feels more energetic and has more stamina to serve people in need.

The Newswanders have three children and eight grandchildren. Like his father, Jerry’s son Bryan has entered full-time ministry and is the lead pastor at Effingham Assembly of God in Illinois.

Ian Richardson

Ian Richardson is a 2014 graduate of Evangel University and former intern with the Pentecostal Evangel. He is originally from Afton, Iowa, where he grew up as the son of an Assemblies of God pastor.