What is demand-focused spiritual care?

Demand-focused spiritual care is the idea that to provide the best spiritual care we need to know where the demand is, not just individually but societally:

  • Who in our society is in need of spiritual care?
  • Where are those people?
  • What is needed?

What’s the difference?

Demand focused spiritual care focuses on people’s needs for spiritual care first before asking questions about the people (chaplains) who provide it. Too much conversation about spiritual care today focuses on supply – how chaplains can be best trained, certified, deployed, and so on. These are good and important questions but need to be the second question we ask, not the first which needs to be about demand.

Traditionally, spiritual care has been provided through institutions like hospitals, nursing facilities, universities and colleges and prisons. Today it is also being provided in less traditional places like community organizations, social movements, and vet clinics. In the traditional settings, chaplains visited people, organized programs and held services among other activities. While some of these offerings have changed, some remain out of habit or institutional routine.

Being intentional

Demand focused spiritual care requires us to look for and name where the demand is in traditional settings and new ones – with isolated elders or undergraduates increasingly not religious affiliated and unlikely to seek out spiritual care providers, for example. Based on demand, chaplains can figure out how to meet the need. Spiritual care providers need to stop providing spiritual care in the routine ways and places unless they have clear evidence that it is meeting a need or demand and is the most strategic way to focus their energies.

Without seeing and naming the demand for spiritual care, how can chaplaincy leaders and educators effectively think about the second important question – which is about supply and the education required to prepare chaplains to meet the demand?

A way forward for chaplains

If you are chaplain, ask yourself some demand questions:

  • How would your work change if it were based entirely on demand for spiritual care?
  • What do you do that is not demand based and you think has little impact?
  • If resources (including time and energy) were unlimited, where do you see demand that you think you and your chaplaincy colleagues could address?
  • Where do you see demand as you move through the world and, if we were starting fresh, where would you position chaplains (i.e. in what kinds of settings and institutions) to do their best work?

A way forward for educators

If you are educator, ask yourself some additional demand questions:

  • What do you know about where there is demand for chaplains or the skills chaplains bring in your region?
  • What do the people hiring chaplains in your region need them to be able to do? How are you teaching those skills?
  • What do your graduates a few years into spiritual care most value from their education? What was missing that they learned on the job?
  • How are you preparing students for the current job market for chaplains and for the demands for their skills in the world?

Considering these questions helps the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab see needs – which are all around us. Even before the pandemic, many people were isolated, individuals and families were struggling with addiction, and people held in ICE detention facilities were not receiving the spiritual care the United States guarantees all federal detainees. Chaplains are in some of these settings but not others and the financial model of the profession is not set up to make paid work for chaplains in many of them possible.

Funding sometimes follows problem solving and chaplains who are able to code switch, name demand, and explain how their work helps to solve problem bigger problems in new settings just might find resources for their work. At Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston, chaplains are partnering with medical assistants to serve isolated elders. Isolation is a huge social problem lots of foundations and philanthropists are trying to address. Some colleges and universities and not sure what to do with chaplains – but imagine if chaplains in higher education could show themselves able to help with exponential student mental health needs these same institutions struggle to address.

Getting creative

Sometimes the demand we see is for a chaplain. More often it is for the skills of deep listening, presence, bridging communities, improvisational ritual and others needed in today’s world. While chaplains do this work, that term doesn’t work for some people and institutions. The term chaplain more often opens up opportunities in the military, healthcare and corrections that have long had chaplains. In other settings like tech companies, among millennials, and in less traditionally religious regions, the language of chaplain is too Christian and shuts down possibilities yet the gaps in need for the work spiritual care providers do is real.

Get involved!

Where do you see demand? How can spiritual providers meet the demand collaborate? What would be your first step in getting there? Write to Michael Skaggs at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab and tell him what you are trying. You can reach him at mskaggs@brandeis.edu.