By Matt Kronberg
Healthcare is rapidly changing to focus on prevention, wellness, and coordination of more holistic care, and spiritual care professionals are a part of this massive shift.
As spiritual care providers, we must focus on not only the patient and family but the health system and common good of society. In a Huffington Post article, Jeffrey Levi wrote, “Our country has a sick care system rather than a health care system.” In large part, I believe this observation is true — and it applies to spiritual care professionals.
Recently I served on a team to update our system’s electronic spiritual assessment form, and we realized that phrases identifying spiritual strengths and assets were sparse at best. Our focus had been on spiritual distress rather than spiritual resources and strengths.
Western medical practitioners are realizing — albeit slowly — that the goal is not merely to reduce a patient’s symptoms; it is to bring overall health and healing. Spiritual care professionals may be wise to consider this perspective as well. Instead of just symptoms of spiritual distress, perhaps we should look at the big picture, engage a person’s spiritual assets and strengths, and help to bring long-term spiritual health. In so doing, we may do well to rethink whether an immediate “outcome” after a spiritual care “intervention” is realistic — especially since our patients are often very sick, and also have shorter and shorter hospital stays.
After reading an article about doctors prescribing walks and time in nature, my wife recently asked me, “So, what kind of prescriptions do chaplains give patients?” I paused, wanting to have a profound answer, before saying, “Uh, hmmm. We don’t really give prescriptions.”
But why not?
Rather than hope for “outcomes” — such as improved coping, a smile, or decreased pain — as a result of a spiritual care visit at the bedside, shouldn’t we consider “prescribing” spiritual practices? Shouldn’t we determine how best to partner with local clergy for follow-up care, give a prescription to watch a sunset, or equip patients and family members to utilize proven practices such as meditation or centering prayer? Doctors are starting to do it. Why don’t chaplains? Other than our own expectations and paradigm, what prevents us from prescribing talking to a friend 3x a week for 15 minutes, writing a psalm of lament, or learning a spiritual discipline?
Throughout the history of faith-based healthcare, the spiritual practices have played a vital role. Those called into the healing ministries who served as a catalyst for our modern health care system were very committed to spiritual practices. From prayer to fasting to the Eucharist, the tradition of spiritual practices as a key aspect of healing goes deep. Yet the value is not merely in the tradition; it is in actually doing the spiritual practices — for such practices can open an avenue of grace and healing for all who partake.
I hope we can further develop current resources and compile a catalog of prescriptions of spiritual care practices for the healthcare setting. In Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (IVP Books, 2005), she presents 55 spiritual disciplines from a range of ancient and contemporary traditions. Classic disciplines such as fasting, solitude, contemplative prayer, and Lectio Divina are explained and explored. Other lesser-known examples are also explained, such as Unplugging, Rule for Life, and Slowing. Such practices could be initiated in the inpatient setting and used in outpatient contexts, as well. A range of spiritual practices could be identified and taught to patients and families to enhance their well-being. It would be vital, as well, to coordinate with faith community leaders to do follow-up spiritual care. In so doing, chaplains would serve as a key resource for both the hospital and for the community.
The time is right for chaplains to further leverage our expertise in spiritual practices. By tapping into this already well-established healing resource, our patient encounters will influence a person’s spiritual health well beyond the hospital campus. We, too, can develop a continuum of care that may enhance our patients’ overall spiritual well-being.
Matt Kronberg, MDiv, BCC, is director of spiritual care for the Dignity Health Central Coast Service Area in Santa Maria, CA.