Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Spotlight: Krister White

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 Krister White of Parkland Health & Hospital System.


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


Krister White

I am the oldest of two kids born to parents who both spent their careers in the helping professions. My mother has worked in education as a special education teacher and as a school counselor. My father has been involved in ministry, counseling, and clinical pastoral education supervision. I was first exposed to healthcare ministry as a child by accompanying my father to the hospital occasionally and watching the unique kinds of relationships he developed with medical staff. I wasn’t sure what I believed spiritually or religiously at the time, but I was captivated by the idea of a hospital serving as the locus of one’s spiritual responsibility. There was a secular spirituality inherent in those hospitals that intrigued me. While I was pretty sure I didn’t want to lead a congregation at the time, I was open to the idea of working in healthcare in some kind of spiritual capacity.

I completed a degree in psychology at Abilene Christian University in 2001 thinking that I would go on to complete graduate work in order to work as a psychologist, but a series of events led me to Brite Divinity School where I fell in love with theology. I was so immersed in constructive theology that I planned on pursuing doctoral work. In the middle of my time at Brite, however, I decided to complete a summer unit of CPE at Methodist Health System in Dallas. That summer, with ACPE Certified Educator John Takacs, Jr., changed my life in ways I struggle to articulate.

What I remember most about my time was how challenging, devastating, and inspiring it was to sit with families who had just lost cherished loved ones. I left every overnight on-call exhausted but more alive than I’d ever felt in my life. I returned to seminary grateful for my experience in CPE and confused about my professional trajectory. After graduating from Brite in 2007, I completed a residency at Children’s Medical Center Dallas and quickly found a home for my love of theology, my interest in behavioral science, and my desire to accompany persons in some of the most difficult times in their lives. Our director, Ron Somers-Clark, encouraged me to consider supervisory training following my residency. That led me to following in my father’s footsteps and becoming an ACPE Certified Educator with the help of my peer group and training supervisors Ron Somers-Clark, Mary Stewart Hall, and Doug Watts.


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

I enjoyed learning as well as explaining concepts and ideas. I have also enjoyed working with people one on one, so the skills I utilized as a chaplain easily transferred to the work of supervision. Working as an ACPE Certified Educator allows me to blend knowledge of theory, spiritual care of others, a deep interest in personal and professional development and integration, and a consistent focus on what I bring to my professional relationships that impacts the learning environment. As a relatively young supervisor, I saw a need for different generational voices at the table when it came to how we educate students, clergy, and other persons interested in learning more about spiritual care.

Research literacy provides students and ACPE Certified Educators an opportunity to explore the ways our relatively young discipline is grappling with the growing pains of professionalization. Research offers qualitative and quantitative data that support some of the practices and interventions that we’ve struggled to name consistently in our educational programs. At the same time, we are also finding that it’s possible to be more efficient in our care or be better interdisciplinary colleagues by listening closely to the results and discussions found in the literature we’re exploring. I have appreciated the engagement our students bring to the task of research literacy. They seem invested in learning more about research in this field because they desire to contribute both in terms of abiding by best practices as well as considering how they might add to the literature with their own research questions. This helps us to keep our focus on professionalization and competencies while not losing sight of of the inter- and intrapersonal elements that have long held sway in our educational methodology.


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

The biggest challenges I see to integrating research literacy into CPE include the fact that most ACPE Certified Educators did not receive much in the way of training in research literacy well enough to feel comfortable teaching it. There is also some understandable discomfort among some educators at the prospect of reducing spiritual care education to a focus on evidenced-based practices seemingly divorced from personal and professional integration. There is also the very real dynamic of having a considerable amount of educational content to cover in a relatively short period of time. CPE programs will need to find ways to reallocate curricular time to focus on research literacy, which may take some time away from other areas that prepare people for other, equally important competencies.


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

Thanks to the Transforming Chaplaincy CPE Curriculum Grant, we are devoting a weekly seminar for the entirety of the second unit to exploring research literacy. This seminar includes resident chaplains and ACPE Certified Educators from Parkland Health & Hospital System, Baylor Scott & White Health, Children’s Health, and Methodist Health System. With close to 40 participants each week, we are learning the basics of reading articles, engaging with colleagues across the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, and making connections between the findings in the literature and spiritual care practices in different contexts for ministry. I hope we will find ways to continue collaborating on research literacy because of how important it is to our discipline and how important it is for those of us leading education programs to teach what is established as best practice in the research.


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

This is a dangerous question given the rapid state of flux healthcare seems to be in at the moment, coupled with our discipline’s more methodical approach to change. For CPE to thrive, I think research literacy will need to become a standard outcome for all levels of CPE, especially for those interested in leading education programs. I believe we will see CPE programs become increasingly focused on evidence-based practices as we continue to more closely align ourselves with the ever-evolving standards of other medical professionals.

I hope that CPE maintains some of its historical identity centered on the clinical method of learning while remaining open to expanding that approach to include evidence-based practice as part of the reflection that precedes new action. I don’t believe that a focus on research literacy takes away from the CPE process; in fact, it can inject a vitality and theoretical heft that has been missing in many of our programs. This will require, of course, that educators join their students by trying something new in hopes that experimentation might bring with it a newfound skill that further expands our capacity to bring hope, healing, and strength to others.

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

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