Do Americans know what chaplains are? We’re not sure.

A new article in the Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy from Lab researchers offers a landmark analysis of chaplaincy’s high value to those in need and significant challenges to the profession’s public image.

“How does the American public interact with chaplains? Evidence from a national survey,” by Amy Lawton, Wendy Cadge, and Jessica Hamar Martinez is now available in the Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy. The article is based on  “the first nationally-representative survey to assess…how the public interacts with chaplains and the outcomes of those interactions.” (12) While almost all existing research on spiritual care provision discusses what it is that chaplains do or how they are trained,  – Lawton et al.’s research reveals, for the first time from a national sample, how chaplains are perceived by the general public (or the “demand side”). (2) 

Dr. Amy Lawton, Chaplaincy Innovation Lab Postdoctoral Researcher

Amy Lawton, PhD
Research Manager
Chaplaincy Innovation Lab

Photo of Wendy Cadge, who will address the World Health Organization conference on October 2021

Wendy Cadge, PhD
Founder and Director
Chaplaincy Innovation Lab

MARTINEZ Jessica Hamar 300sq

Jessica Hamar Martinez
Research Consultant
University of Arizona

Spiritual care is meaningful and impactful

Two major conclusions resulted from this survey, which was conducted on the Lab’s behalf by Gallup, Inc. First, the work that chaplains do is impactful and meaningful to those they serve. Nearly three quarters of respondents who reported an interaction with a chaplain described that interaction as either moderately or very valuable. (10) Within those interactions, the top three activities reported were prayer with the care recipient, listening, and general comforting as reported by respondents. Importantly, even when the interaction included prayer, “an important theme from [qualitative follow-up interviews] was praise for chaplains for offering help instead of pushing their own religious beliefs.” (10): As rates of formal religious affiliation continue to decline, it is vital that chaplain training and perspective reflect that “a religious chaplain can connect with someone who is not religious.” (11)

Second, the issue of how chaplains are understood by the broader public remains a vexing problem for the profession. Lawton et al. note that “The Gallup survey included a straightforward definition of chaplains. Despite this definition, responses in surveys and interviews showed that people are not certain or consistent about who counts as a chaplain.” (4) In other words, public understanding of chaplains is so poor that respondents were consistently unable to articulate whether they had interacted with a chaplain despite having been given a definition in the previous survey question. One respondent, for instance, “emphatically did not count the military chaplain that he had met as someone who fit his personal definition.” (7) If respondents are not willing to acknowledge chaplains employed by the federal government as meeting the respondent’s own definition of chaplain, then the field faces significant challenges in public awareness and perception of the work of chaplaincy.

Spiritual care can move outside institutions

While the survey revealed a public lack of understanding of the work of chaplains, it also found that nearly a fifth of Americans (18%) have definitely interacted with a chaplain. Those interactions largely took place in highly institutionalized settings: two thirds of respondents reported that their contact was in a  healthcare and palliative care / hospice setting, with the military or VA, corrections, and educational settings (K-12 and higher education) following. (7-8) In one way these findings are unsurprising, given that respondents noted their interactions with chaplains most frequently focused on death and dying, loss, or change — very common issues in institutional settings. But death and dying, loss, and change are experienced by many outside of those settings, as well, indicating significant new opportunities and settings in which spiritual care providers could meet those in need.

Michael Skaggs is Director of Programs for the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.

Michael Skaggs, PhD