Understanding Spiritual Care and the Benefits of Hospital Chaplaincy

What is a hospital chaplain?  

Chaplains are service people who are a part of the multidisciplinary teams in institutions such as hospitals, military, schools, and more. But what many people do not know or often misunderstand is the variety of roles a chaplain is there to fill and the different kinds of support they might offer to those in need. So what exactly is a chaplain? Does a chaplain need to be religious? Does a patient need to be religious to benefit from a chaplain’s services? Who do chaplains visit? And what sorts of help might they offer? We’re going to get into some of these questions and explore what it means to provide spiritual care. Let’s start with the basics. 

What does a hospital chaplain do? 

Hospital chaplains provide a wide range of services and forms of support. All of them relate back to the same core principle: hospital chaplains are there to lend help and support toward a person’s emotional and spiritual well-being (we’ll discuss exactly what ‘spiritual’ means in a minute). That means chaplains are there for your spiritual needs, not – as many people think – to present their own or any particular religious or spiritual path. Hospital chaplains will be there for you no matter what religion you identify with and no matter what you do or do not believe. Ranging from a patient who just wants to talk about their experiences, reflect with an experienced clinician, learn centering meditative exercises, or receive prayer, chaplains are there to lend support to a patient’s emotional and spiritual needs, regardless of religion or creed. 

What is ‘spiritual’ support? 

Understanding spiritual support is the key to understanding the role played by hospital chaplains. Spiritual, in this case, is about the way people ascribe self-meaning and self-purpose to their lives. For some that may be religion, but for others it may be family, community, profession, or anything that fills them with a sense of fulfillment. When someone is in the hospital or dealing with illness, they’re susceptible to spiritual distress since they can’t satisfy or access their usual sources of self-purpose. The result can be a sense of meaninglessness or uselessness.  

That’s where hospital chaplains look to offer support. Spiritual support isn’t about helping people find religion, it’s about helping people to understand, explore, and upkeep their own sense of meaning, whatever that may be. Because the support of the chaplain is all about the patient’s particular emotional, social, spiritual needs, the role played by hospital chaplains can take all sorts of shapes and forms. 

How do chaplains get involved with patients? 

In many hospitals, chaplains make rounds (just like other health care practitioners) and visit every patient so all they and their families know the chaplain services are available. Chaplains also work directly with hospital staff to determine which patients might benefit from chaplain services. Chaplains also offer services to hospital staff, who, given the nature of their jobs, often themselves could gain from spiritual care.  

Are there health benefits to hospital chaplaincy? 

The spiritual and emotional support given by hospital chaplains offers more than just a feel-good benefit – those good feelings actually translate into better health. In one study, terminal cancer patients who received spiritual care had quality-of-life scores that were 28% higher than those who did not. Patients who receive spiritual care generally experience higher levels of patient satisfaction, which contributes the desire to get well, a speedier recovery, and confidence to leave the hospital once they’re ready. 

Conclusion: Chaplains are here to help!  

Chaplains serve in hospitals, hospices, and other health care organizations to offer spiritual care to people who might need it. In an emotionally distressing environment such as the hospital, it’s important for people to have access to spiritual care and receive the support they need. Chaplains are there for you, no matter your religion, whether you’re a patient or staff member. If/when you’re involved with a hospital(s), don’t hesitate to reach out, ask questions, and find out more about their chaplain/spiritual care services. 

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If you or anyone you know are in crisis or may be in danger, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or click here for reference to get immediate help.