Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Spotlight: Mary Martha Thiel

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 Rev. Mary Martha Thiel of Hebrew SeniorLife.


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


Rev. Mary Martha Thiel

I grew up in the Midwest, the child of an American mother and an Estonian father. After World War II, marriage to my mother became my father’s long-sought visa to the US. So I grew up with a much wider worldview than most of my peers and with the existential angst typical of the second generation of trauma survivors – my father had lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany. At Bryn Mawr College I took pre-med courses and majored in the history of religion, planning to be a physician. Yet I was strongly attracted to CPE! In those days, the only way to get into CPE was to be enrolled in an MDiv program, so I went to Union Theological Seminary. I did CPE there while getting my MDiv and planned to continue to medical school after. As time went on I realized that what drew me to the medical context was fascination with how people make meaning of crisis and illness rather than the science of diagnosis and treatment. I switched professional gears and went into chaplaincy. I did two amazing CPE residency years at Columbia Presbyterian and was ordained a UCC minister. That setting and my spiritual intensity were a good match. I began thinking about becoming what we then called a CPE Supervisor. I worked for four years as Assistant Director of Chaplaincy at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, a palliative care hospital for cancer patients. I loved my years there but later moved on to enter supervisory CPE at Interfaith Healthcare Ministries in Providence, eventually becoming an ACPE Certified Educator.


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

Spiritual care goes to the heart of meaning and of human dignity in some of the most challenging situations of life. It is a privilege to work this close to “the real,” even in the face of so much that is ultimately unknown. I can’t think of another discipline I would rather bring my life energies to. And I appreciate being able to push the growing edges of the discipline! Research literacy does several really important things.

First, research literacy allows chaplains to talk with their colleagues. Otherwise, we’re speaking different languages. When colleagues and I published a qualitative study of parents’ reflecting spiritually on the end of their children’s lives in pediatric intensive care units, it made medical news! The content was thoroughly familiar to chaplains, but presented in a respected medical journal and expressed in the language and format of that culture made it worthwhile for many others on the interdisciplinary team! To care for people well, we need to help the whole team understand that many people experience illness not as a scientific event but as a spiritual experience.

Second, research literacy can guide aspects of both practice and education. Over the last few years I’ve been studying and teaching the spiritual care of those without a religious affiliation or identity. The research on this is amazing but can be confusing, too. Pew’s 2013 report on Jewish Americans, for example, demonstrates how self-report categories don’t necessarily give chaplains the information they need. Of those who self-identify as Jews by religion, 20% do not believe in God. Of those who self-identify as Jews of no religion, 45% do believe in God and are ritually observant. This means that if a Jewish patient says to the chaplain “I’m not religious,” on the basis of research, the chaplain knows to cast the net widely enough to capture potential religious belief and practice when exploring the person’s spiritual resources. Without research literacy, the chaplain is not apt to know that.


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

Most of us who are now ACPE Certified Educators were not trained in research literacy. This means we have had to seek training actively and be committed to staying at the growing edges of our profession. This is quite a big culture shift. I think another significant challenge has to do with the natural strengths of persons who go into spiritual care compared to those who choose to be researchers. In Meyers Briggs terms, many chaplains tend to function with intuition and feeling, whereas many researchers tend to demonstrate skill in sensation and thinking. For some chaplains, generating enthusiasm for research literacy will be an uphill climb!


How do you integrate research literacy into your own educational practices? 

I include some research in didactic presentations, such as when teaching about spiritual care of the nonreligious. On the syllabus, I list optional reading on each week’s topic for students who want to explore more deeply; sometimes these readings are research articles. I set aside one didactic session for each student to present their summary and critique of a research article focusing on the CPE unit’s specialty topic or a topic related to one of their learning goals. I also refer the students to the ACPE Research Network page as a place to start their explorations. These elements expose students to a bit of the breadth of research that might inform their spiritual caregiving. When APC’s research webinars fall during CPE hours, I have my students participate in them. I open our department’s Research Club to the CPE students, who are also welcome to attend lunchtime presentations in the research arm of our organization.

I am usually involved in some qualitative research project or another with an interdisciplinary group at another hospital. I talk with my students about the project in a general way, so they can see that part of a chaplain’s job is participating in research.


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

Our educational outcomes standards could be more uniform and measurable, and less overlapping. The self-directed aspect of CPE education would include research literacy, conversation with researchers, and conducting simple interdisciplinary research. The concept of cultural competency would be expanded to include thinking/talking/understanding the worldview of other disciplines and their research. The quality of spiritual care research will have improved, making it easier to offer to students for their use in CPE programs.


We’re grateful to Mary Martha for contributing to our spotlight series.


**Update 3/27/18: Rev. Thiel was recently featured in the ACPE weekly news for her work with training spiritual generalists. Check out the article here.**

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