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How Healthcare Chaplains Build Trust, Overcome Skepticism

It’s no secret that Americans are less frequently identifying themselves by religious traditions. More and more people are opting to identify themselves as “nones” when it comes to their religious identity.

Consequently, those of us who are chaplains working in inclusive environments, such as healthcare chaplaincy, are driven to find new ways to help those with no religious background find spiritual meaning and purpose because the majority of our patients do not come from religious backgrounds.

And while we live in a culture where it can be difficult to talk about religion or spirituality with strangers, we are discovering ways to foster conversations with others about spirituality – especially with those who identify themselves as “nones.”

Several years ago, many of my single seminary classmates, myself included, would discuss the challenges of going on first dates and having to explain to our potential partners that we were studying to become pastors or chaplains.

While some of us tried to hide our future profession by simply stating we were going into “social services” or “nonprofit management,” we learned that one cannot disguise their work as a clergyperson because of the responsibility that comes from being a pastor or chaplain.

And while people of faith who are not clergy can avoid discussing the importance of their spirituality or religious beliefs for a while, once they develop relationships with others, the topic will eventually come up.

Those of us who are chaplains in a hospital or work in hospice care cannot hide our job title when we encounter patients.

However, we learn to use our job title as a chaplain to open the door to meaningful conversations about spirituality and religion.

Sure, some individuals may become more cautious around us given the hypocrisy that often accompanies those who identify as being spiritual or religious.

And as chaplains, we can pick up on the body language of our patients when we walk into rooms and share what our role is in the hospitals and hospice organizations we serve.

However, this also gives us the opportunity to illustrate our authenticity as a person of faith to those who may have never witnessed this before.

I also have learned that when it comes to spiritual care, no matter what one’s spiritual or religious background may be, we all have a need to enrich our spiritual lives by engaging in better spiritual self-care.

One of the activities I do each week with my patients who are hospitalized in the psychiatric care unit of the hospital is help them discover activities that can enhance their spiritual lives – no matter how they define spirituality.

These activities range from praying, meditating, journaling and yoga, to immersing oneself in the outdoors.

I have discovered that while the religious and spiritual lives of my patients vary from Baptist to Buddhist to atheist, they all share a common desire to learn, engage and discover ways to nurture their souls.

Having conversations with others about spiritual self-care is a great way to find commonality with others, no matter what their spiritual or religious traditions may be.

In fact, it can also be a way for one to engage in a spiritual self-care activity with someone new even if they have a different religious or spiritual tradition than one’s own.

The most enriching way I have learned to foster spiritual conversations with religious “nones” is through building authentic relationships.

In healthcare chaplaincy, specifically hospital chaplaincy, this can be difficult because patients tend to be discharged quickly, such that opportunities to have follow-up conversations are not frequent.

However, in cases where patients have been hospitalized for longer stays and when it comes to working with other healthcare associates through serving on committees and working on long-term projects, I’ve noticed that once people feel like they can trust me, they are more inclined to share their spiritual views and ask questions about my own spiritual views.

Earning the trust of others is important because many people are skeptical and cautious around those who define themselves as people of faith – and for good reason.

From those who have experienced hurt, neglect and abuse, to those in the LGBTQ+ community who have been or continue to be excluded from religious communities, we cannot heal the pain someone has experienced by a church or person of faith simply in one conversation.

However, when time has been given to allow an authentic relationship to grow in a safe environment where someone who identifies themselves as a “none” can trust that we won’t proselytize or ostracize them, conversations about spirituality can begin to blossom.

While many believe the secularization of our culture and the rise of religious “nones” is a troubling trend, I see it as an opportunity – and not just for us in healthcare chaplaincy, but also for anyone who works in community ministry or simply is known in their community or workplace as a person of faith.

Our society offers no greater time to develop authentic relationships, embrace religious and spiritual diversity and create safe spaces where conversations about spiritual meaning and purpose can be fostered.

If we allow individuals the opportunity to share their doubts, ask questions and feel accepted for who they are, we can discover the common thread we all share as humans: seeking to find meaning and purpose in something greater than ourselves.

Christopher Schilling

Christopher L. Schilling is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, hospital chaplain, and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.