By Robert Mundle, MDiv, STM, ThM, BCC
In April 2013, a qualitative research study I co-authored with Brett Smith will be published in the journal Illness, Crisis and Loss. It’s called “Hospital chaplains and embodied listening: Engaging with stories and the body in healthcare environments,” and the remarkable thing for me is how it grew out of our correspondence that began five years ago.
I first learned about Smith’s work by reading an article he co-authored with his colleague Andrew Sparkes titled, “Men, sport, spinal cord injury and narratives of hope” (Smith & Sparkes 2005). I had just started a new job at Toronto Rehab and was conducting a literature review in order to explore topics in physical medicine and rehabilitation that might be relevant to chaplaincy. I was especially drawn to Smith and Sparkes’s article because of their narrative study of “Jamie,” a young man with a spinal cord injury who embodied what sociologist Arthur Frank (1995) would call a “chaos” narrative. My correspondence with Smith was based initially on our shared interest in Frank’s work on narrative, and, as our dialogue continued, we began to explore ideas to develop a new research study together to be focused on how chaplains as story listeners embody narrative theory in their clinical practice.
As a scholar in narrative theory and qualitative research methods, Smith was an expert guide for me through various processes – from the ethics review, to design, interviews, analysis, writing, and publication review. Moreover, working with Smith has taught me many things about how chaplains can “delve deeply” into research, including the following three main points:
Smith affirmed for me that from his perspective chaplains are natural qualitative researchers. This includes the ways that chaplains are trained to not rush people through their story; respond empathically to others; seek rich descriptions of human life; and to use all of their senses to understand people without reducing them to atomized individuals. In other words, chaplains embody qualitative methods in their clinical practice, such as narrative, phenomenology, and ethnography, in ways that extend the self towards the meaning-making of the other to evoke and even to co-create narratives. A close parallel to all of this would be the postmodern aims of “collaborative therapy” (e.g., Anderson & Gehert 2007).
Next steps would include bridging chaplaincy practice more intentionally to qualitative theory, which can help extend chaplaincy research into wider scholarly and inter-professional networks. One way to begin this process would be for chaplains to develop more of a scholarly vocabulary in order to speak more directly about the close ties between theory and practice that inform each other in chaplaincy care and beyond. As a start, Smith’s recommendations would include reading “Qualitative Methods for Health Research,” by Green & Thorogood (2004); “Qualitative Research Methods,” by Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey (2011); and, of course, his own forthcoming book with Andrew Sparkes, “Qualitative Research Methods in Sport, Exercise, and Health: From Process to Product.”
Smith would say that as an academic he’s often invited to work with people on research projects, and that most of these opportunities he turns down. One reason for this is simply time and workload demands. But another reason, he says, has to do with what German sociologist Georg Simmel (1971) called “sociability” – that to interact sociably is to interact for the pleasure of interacting in itself. This might seem like a strange criterion for agreeing to collaborate with others on a research project. However, because qualitative research usually takes such a long time, it requires much trust and determination between partners to see a project through to its completion; and the shared pleasure in working collaboratively towards a final goal means a lot. Therefore, sociability is an important aspect for potential research partners to consider up front. To sociability, chaplains might add vocabulary of “covenant” to their research partnerships. At any rate, I was honored that Smith was willing to work with me, and I think we worked well together, mostly via email, and across time zones.
In 2012, Smith presented some of his other research findings to members of Parliament in the UK, specifically regarding the plight of the many young people with spinal cord injuries who must live in elderly care homes. His research supported the revision of governmental policy and reallocation of resources to enhance the well-being of spinal cord injured people.
In turn, Smith affirmed for me that chaplains, too, have the potential to make important contributions to improving the quality of patient care based upon the stories they witness. Moreover, if the future of chaplaincy care itself depends upon demonstrating that it makes a difference to patient care in general, then research is vital to its survival.
In my own way, I have contributed my interest in research to the NACC’s Research Task Force; and I have aligned myself strategically with my inter-professional colleagues within healthcare environments, especially clinical educators. I hope to present my initiatives in this area at the NACC conference in April in a poster titled, “Integrating Spiritual Health Research into Interdisciplinary Clinical Education Programs.” In part, this poster will show how I have taken the findings of my research study with Smith on how chaplains embody listening and applied them in courses taught to healthcare staff on aspects of patient- and family-centered care and palliative care.
The best part about research is that it is a process that never ends; each result leads to “next steps” for further exploration, learning, and growth. Throughout my research journey with Smith I think we both came to appreciate in new ways that our lives are always open-ended, or “unfinalized,” as the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) put it – that we never truly know what might be around the next corner. But one thing is certain, the journey is much more enjoyably productive when it is shared with like-minded others – partners in research who become friends in the process.
Robert Mundle works in spiritual health at St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital site, Providence Care, in Kingston, ON, Canada. He is also a member of the NACC’s Research Task Force.
Anderson, H., & Gehert, D. (Eds.) (2007). Collaborative therapy: Relationships and conversations that make a difference. New York: Routledge.
Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics, ed., trans., C. Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.
Frank, A. (1995). The wounded storyteller: Body, illness and ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Green, J. & Thorogood, N. (2004). Qualitative methods for health research. London: Sage.
Hennink, M., Hutter, I. & Bailey, A. (2011). Qualitative research methods. London: Sage.
Simmel, G. (1971) On individuality and social forms: Selected writings, ed. D.N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smith, B., & Sparkes, A. (2005). Men, sport, spinal cord injury and narratives of hope. Social Science & Medicine, 61(5), 1095-1105.
Smith, B., & Sparkes, A. (2013). Qualitative research methods in sport, exercise, and health: From process to product. New York: Routledge.