Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Spotlight: Brian Hughes

One of the best ways for Transforming Chaplaincy to help foster research literacy is to help chaplains become acquainted with one another and leaders in their fields. With that in mind, the Spotlight feature interviews one or more chaplains, educators, administrators / healthcare professionals, or researchers. These leaders are putting Transforming Chaplaincy to work in the world, and we hope their experience offers valuable insights for the entire Transforming Chaplaincy community. In this issue, we’re spotlighting Brian Hughes, BCC, who has been active in chaplaincy practice, research, and education in a number of roles.


Tell us about yourself. Where are you from, what education or training do you have, and how did you end up in chaplaincy?

Brian Hughes, BCC

I am a board certified chaplain through both the Association of Professional Chaplains and the Spiritual Care Association. After completing my MS in Religious Communication from Abilene Christian University, I spent three years completing an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary. I am ordained in the Church of Christ and currently worship with the Presbyterian Church (USA). While in seminary, I completed a field education placement CPE unit at Cabrini Medical Center in New York City.

I knew quickly that the field of professional chaplaincy was my calling. I loved that the questions I rarely experienced being asked in a congregation were being grappled with daily. The authenticity of human experience – suffering, grief, and hope – in the midst of  all my interactions was appealing to me. I recognized that my lifelong compassion and solidarity with the outsider, the marginalized, and the most vulnerable in our community would energize much of my care.

I completed three more units of CPE at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, TX, and five more units in Phoenix; ultimately, a full-time staff position was operationalized at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. I became BCC through the APC in 2004 and through the SCA in 2016. I’ve also worked as a staff chaplain at Baylor Irving Medical Center (TX), Magee Rehabilitation Hospital (PA), and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (PA). I also authored The Handbook for Spiritual Care to those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury through HealthCare Chaplaincy Network (HCCN) for the US Navy and Department of Defense.

I’d provided various one-time contract services to HCCN and then was hired to work part-time as a contract employee in 2012. In that role, I have taught the online Palliative Care Chaplaincy Course , authored several educational modules for their online learning center, worked in Programs and Services introducing HCCN resources to chaplaincy departments worldwide, and authored two white papers on spiritual care (“Spiritual Care: What It Means, Why It Matters in Health Care” and “Spiritual Care and Nursing: A Nurse’s Contribution and Practice”). I also work as the assessor and consultant to spiritual care departments seeking to complete the Excellence in Spiritual Care Award.


Why did you decide to pursue research literacy, and what do you think is the primary benefit that research literacy confers on chaplaincy?

CPE residents and newly certified BCCs must realize that their positions, role, authority, and reputations largely depend on successfully demonstrating their unique contributions to the health care team through the use of evidence-based best practices. A Department of Spiritual Care will always be asked to contribute concretely and explicitly to the mission, strategic initiatives, and quality improvement initiatives of the institutions that they serve. Alignment occurs when evidence-based best practices are used to strategize how BCCs and CPE centers can provide unique and productive contributions to these institutional efforts.

For example, at the moment, there is no consensus within the chaplaincy profession concerning which spiritual assessment is best to use, let alone most accurate, effective, and productive. As a result, we have dozens and dozens of different tools floating around in practice and the literature. Two that I am aware of that have been validated in the research include Monod’s “Spiritual Distress Assessment Tool,” an instrument few chaplains have yet used; and Shields’ “Spiritual AIM,” which is used a little more widely but still is not common, let alone standard. In order to speak with one voice in advocacy and to clearly communicate to our health care systems the unique contributions we make as BCCs, we must evolve, build, and begin to daily practice evidence-based best practices. The benefit, then, is that we can speak with confidence and authority about what the published evidence says about our contributions, rather than relying on anecdotal demonstrations of positive impacts.


What are, in your opinion, the primary challenges to integrating research literacy into chaplaincy practice?

One of the primary challenges I have seen repeatedly in BCCs and CPE centers is hesitancy to fully embrace the idea of research literacy forming part of our daily practice. Many appear to view the five annual hours APC requires in their continuing education as an unnecessary burden. Many also perceive reading research and knowing how to apply it to our daily practice as too complex, too confusing, too esoteric, too reductive or too scientific for the mystery of the sacred or spiritual, or even too overwhelming to know where to begin. Without an intentional effort on behalf of the BCC or CPE center to learn how to locate and then read research, to evaluate it, and to then apply it to one’s practice, many appear to begrudgingly cross off the five annual hours of reading or of research-related research, effectively neutering the potential impact on their professional activities.

There are many strong research-centric resources available for BCCs to use in order to become more familiar, comfortable, and conversant in evidence-based best practices. One of the best is the Webinar Journal Club series that George Fitchett and Patricia Murphy provide. The annual Best Chaplaincy Papers webinar that I coordinate also is helpful and has a low barrier to entry, as we discuss the best published chaplaincy-related research from the previous calendar year, broken down into topics like end of life care, military/VA, advocacy issues, and the like. APC’s website offers a reading room resource, as well as numerous past webinars and conference workshops. Other helpful online resources include both the Spiritual Care Association’s Online Learning Center and Transforming Chaplaincy’s new website.


Take us 10 years into the future. What’s different about chaplaincy then as a result of research literacy becoming a standard competency?

My prayer for the profession is that we learn to place the same emphasis and priority on evidence-based best practice as do our non-chaplaincy clinical partners. Until we do so, we risk being a kind of professional stepchild, unable to sufficiently articulate and translate our role effectively to our interprofessional colleagues and administrators. When we as a profession continue to prioritize research literacy, we ultimately create a field that is based on agreed-upon best practices, as evidenced by reputable and peer-reviewed research. We will coalesce around specific, validated instruments and tools, value clinical competence, and communicate with one another and our clinical partners more effectively. We will better know which spiritual care interventions to use in specific clinical situations because we are familiar with the research demonstrating their effectiveness. Finally, we will spend less time overtly demonstrating our relevance, because it will be much clearer and better understood by our clinical partners.


We’re grateful to Brian for contributing to our spotlight series.

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