Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Transforming Chaplaincy Fellow interviews Helen Butlin

Transforming Chaplaincy Fellow Petra Wahnefried recently interviewed Helen Butlin, a chaplain and spiritual care expert whose expertise lies in patients’ wisdom:

Listening to Helen Butlin speak about religion and spirituality research feels like sitting at the feet of one of the great spiritual teachers. In our interview, Butlin artfully wove together profound spiritual insights and knowledge about research; it was impossible to decipher where one subject stopped and the other began.  With poised expertise, an inquisitive academic’s mind, and a great sense of humor, Helen Butlin is a chaplain and a researcher to follow, as well as an inspiration to the field.

Butlin has worked in spiritual care for twenty years in as an certified interfaith Spiritual Care Practitioner (Canadian Association of Spiritual Care), a spiritual care specialist, a registered psychotherapist, and, most recently, a religion and spirituality (R/S) researcher. She began her clinical work with a residency at St. Michael’s in London, Ontario where her educators stressed the value of translating spiritual needs in a way that medical professionals might understand.  She learned that “just doing good work is not enough to show your value as a chaplain; you must be able to show your value through research.”

She began her own forays into research at her second job, when her palliative care coworkers asked her to educate them on the spiritual needs people have in the dying process.  This led Butlin to conduct her first literature review and was, according to Butlin, when her “fire got lit” for research.  When asked to describe why R/S research is important, she said “we have a very valuable specialty, but a difficult one to distinguish from professional, established discourses of psychology and mental health…research is there for a good purpose and it really helps to generate a collective voice with a strong language about what we do.”  It is this collective voice to which she hopes her own R/S research contributes.

Later, when working in an oncology care setting, Butlin was inspired to take her research one step further.  She had pioneered and was running a cancer support group called ‘Soul Medicine,’ which utilized different spiritual traditions to help cancer patients uncover their spiritual center.  She immediately noticed that profound insights were being generated in the group, and she longed “to capture this spiritual gold – this intelligible wisdom – in a way to put it into practice in oncology care.” She consulted a trusted advisor, Dr. Jeff Nisker, who pointed her to a PhD and became her superviser. They were joined later by a co-supervisor, Dr. Anne Kinsella, who has worked closely with Helen to develop a unique qualitative methodology, ‘hermeneutic-poetic-phenomenology,’ for the research on ‘wisdom’ about how to understand and describe what she was seeing.  While reluctant at first, Butlin stepped up to the challenge and started her PhD at Western University in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in the field of Health Professional Education.  She is writing her dissertation on wisdom as experienced by women with ovarian cancer while continuing her work as an outpatient spiritual care specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in London.

Butlin chose to write her dissertation on wisdom as experienced by women because of ovarian cancer’s dire diagnosis and the wisdom that it has generated.  She noticed that ovarian cancer patients were often overlooked due to lack of funding and poor prognosis. She also noticed that they tended to have both the most profound wisdom and the greatest need for wisdom in the face of their own potential death.  In her words, “they had to get out of bed each day with ovarian cancer and find a reason to hope.” That intangible reason to hope was what intrigued her most. Through her research, she hopes to create space for these patients to share their wisdom within the science-dominated medical field.  Butlin hopes to highlight that patients, as much as doctors, have wisdom to bring to the practice of medicine. Practitioners simply need to stop and listen to it.  In her article “Searching for Wisdom in Oncology Care: A Scoping Review,” one can get a taste of the “spiritual gold” within her research.

However, while Butlin brings a wealth of experience to her work, she does not think that research is only for PhDs.  Instead, she offers an inspiring invitation for all chaplains to join this important work.  She said “We are in another phase on our planet.  It is not unique, but it a constellation of events on the planet that are calling all of us to stand firmly grounded in the values of what is humane, and what is preserving of the human dignity of every person.  Chaplains have a huge amount to contribute to that…by being dedicated in our profession and context. Research is critical to that.  That gives us a voice in the conversation.  But let’s make it creative.  Let’s make it unique.  Let’s make it about the spirit.  The spirit of being human…do what you are passionate about.  If you are about numbers and saving dollars, please do that.  If you are not, don’t try to fit yourself into a box.  Find what you are passionate about.”

Butlin is a perfect example of finding what she is passionate about.  Research on wisdom can at times seem to be an intangible field.  However, she places this important concept into research paradigms and finds ways to describe both artfully and scientifically what chaplains know to be important to the field: wisdom.


To learn more about Helen, check out her co-authored book featured at


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