Executive perspectives on chaplains on the healthcare team

Chaplains and spiritual care providers who work in healthcare organizations have been much in the news. Their voices echo from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and Slate as they “run toward the dying” and at some hospitals try to make sure no one dies alone. They are at the front lines caring for nurses, physicians respiratory therapists and other healthcare providers who are physically and emotionally exhausted. Chaplains have long promoted wholeness, presence and hope in healthcare organizations and continue to do so more for healthcare staff than patients right now on the front lines of COVID-19.

Why chaplains, and why now?

As a sociologist of contemporary religion, I have spent the past fifteen years shadowing and interviewing chaplains in healthcare organizations and beyond. Growing numbers of Americans are not religious affiliated or involved in local religious organizations, and growing numbers of clergy are working outside rather than inside of traditional congregations.

In a survey we conducted last year through the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University, we learned that 21% of Americans had contact with a chaplain in the last two years. Over half reported having this contact in healthcare setting, a number likely to grow as chaplains are essential workers in some healthcare organizations and are central figures communicating with family members not allowed to visit.

Chaplains in healthcare

This year, colleagues and I have been interviewing healthcare executives across the country about how they understand spiritual care. Executives view the importance of chaplains in terms of their ability to manage the personal and social impact of death and dying in the hospital as well as during times of crisis and tragedy.

The president of a faith-based hospital described a situation early on in his tenure when a medical error occurred, and the director of spiritual care held a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) support session with the nursing staff involved. In the retelling, he said he had no idea a chaplain could be a first responder. Healthcare is a tough business and can be potentially traumatizing, he now believes, that the support chaplains after potentially traumatic events is, “dollars and cents from a staff retention perspective.”

Some executives also spoke about how chaplains help to address staff turnover by paying attention to moral distress and overall perceptions of scarcity in healthcare. As healthcare systems consolidate, for example, decision-makers identified chaplains as potential partners in helping employees. As one executive noted in reference to a hospital merger, “chaplains understand that healthcare is changing but that change does not have to be negative.” Chaplains can help to reframe and refocus people on the mission and the core components of the mission and how employees live it. In this way, chaplains are seen by some healthcare leaders as potential allies in maintaining productivity and addressing uncertainty from staff during periods of organizational changes including mergers, acquisitions and closures.

Most of the hospital executives also listed a range of events, programs and initiatives chaplains organize at their hospitals to proactively support staff as a key feature of their value in their hospital settings. Nearly every executive respondent mentioned gatherings where chaplains served staff (tea, coffee, desserts) and let them talk about their emotions in relation to the work. As one executive told us, “those kinds of things are invaluable to making staff and clinical teams feel like they are being cared, that someone is being compassionate to them, and that they are able to extend compassion to their patients.”

Always there

Chaplains have been – and remain – at the side of staff and executives as they struggle through the new reality of COVID-19. The care for the caregiver chaplains provide prepares them to remain key partners, standing shoulder to shoulder, with other healthcare providers and executives as our healthcare organizations face the health and economic changes ahead.

Wendy Cadge is a Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University and a founder of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.