By David Lewellen
Before chaplains think outside the box, they should think hard about what’s inside the box.
That is why the Rev. Dr. Steve Nolan titled his plenary speech “Lifting the Lid on Chaplaincy.” “The box I’m thinking of is the one marked outcomes and presence,” he said, referring to the traditional ways of thinking about spiritual care ministry. “This is a false dichotomy.” Outcome depends on being present, and chaplaincy of presence still desires good outcome.
But at the juxtaposition between outcomes and presence is case study research. This form offers “significant amounts of rich and compelling data,” said Nolan, a licensed psychotherapist and ordained Baptist minister and chaplain at Princess Alice Hospice in Surrey, England. “But we don’t realize our stories are data.”
He outlined several disparate published case studies, but “a common factor runs through them, which is relationship.” Using techniques such as building rapport, reflective listening, and withholding judgment, “Chaplaincy care has the form of psychotherapy.” Anticipating the murmur that ran through the room, he continued, “Hear me. It should be treated as a holistic therapeutic intervention in its own right” but not an intervention for any healthcare professional to apply.
Chaplaincy ministers to spiritual needs, but Nolan pointed out that the United States is starting to follow the path of his native England, and Europe as a whole, in declining figures for church attendance and participation. “I may very well be a visitor from your future,” he said.
What do chaplains offer? They affirm the divine or support transcendence. They work with a patient’s belief or life philosophy. They provide ritual, religious or not. They provide presence. All these roles, Nolan said, are ones that would be expected from a religious figure.
But the context is changing. In Great Britain, Nolan said, humanist chaplains are challenging the ministry of church-endorsed chaplains to care for non-religious people. As church affiliation falls, more people might find themselves talking to a chaplain during their moment of crisis, rather than a parish clergyperson.
But religious vs. non-religious is another false dichotomy, Nolan said: “I don’t agree a chaplain can be a generic chaplain. We all have a view from somewhere, and it will inform our work.” The key, he said, is that non-religious pastoral care at present fails to understand the role of spirituality. Religion and spirituality are “intimately connected, but not the same thing,” he said. “Religion is one expression of a much bigger phenomenon.”
In this changing climate, Nolan is uncertain how long chaplaincy will survive as a healthcare profession, but “the time to tell our stories is now,” he said. “We have fantastic stories to tell, and we need to tell our stories, because our stories are our data. Care for the human spirit, nothing more, nothing less. Tell your stories.”