Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Spotlight: Petra Wahnefried

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 Petra Wahnefried, a Transforming Chaplaincy Fellow currently at the University of South Carolina.


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

Petra Wahnefried

I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina with my parents and an older brother. I went to college at Duke University where I majored in religion and minored in developmental psychology; I went to seminary at Princeton Theological Seminary and finished with an MDiv. After working in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for several years, I became a chaplain and received BCC certification. I am currently attending the University of South Carolina for an MPH in the Health Promotion, Education and Behavior Program. I’m getting married in July to my fiancée Nate; planning a wedding while being in graduate school has certainly been an adventure in time management!


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

I was raised by a mother who excels at research. Around the dinner table, I would hear her discuss what she was discovering and how she was changing people’s lives through her research on cancer survivorship. I was inspired by her, but with my own personal interest in religion and spiritual care, I never thought that I would change lives the same way that she did through her research. During my second year of residency, I was proven wrong. My medical center was awarded a research grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and the grant encouraged me to pursue research literacy and even try my own small research project. I fell in love with the wor, and realized what I had always hoped – that research was not separate from religion and spiritual care, but an essential part of it. Research gave me the tools to improve my practice. Being research literate allows me as a chaplain to refine my practice and to make a bigger impact in the world through using evidence-based practices and up-to-date knowledge in the field. Through reading articles on religion and spiritual care, I gain knowledge to answer questions that I have wondered about chaplaincy practice. Having some experience with research, and with the help of a multi-disciplinary team, I have the tools to pursue the questions that are relevant to my specific site. Through research, I am a better chaplain all around.


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

One of the primary challenges of integrating research literacy into chaplaincy practice is finding the time to read the literature. As most chaplains know, in most hospital systems there are not enough chaplains to accomplish the visits needed. But chaplains need to make research literacy a priority in order to become literate and for it to transform their practice. It is worth the time spent because it allows us to alter our practice to better anticipate patient needs, rather than constantly trying to catch up to the needs that are always plentiful.


How do you integrate research literacy into your own practice?

I am currently in the process of publishing my first research article that evolved from questions I had around Levine Cancer Institute’s tele-chaplaincy practices. I am also doing several literature reviews on topics of interest to me. When I have a question about religion, spirituality or chaplaincy, I turn to research articles for answers. I am never disappointed by the wealth of information available. Even the gaps in research are exciting, because they offer promise of future studies that I might conduct.


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

I imagine that in 10 years, we will be able to better articulate the work that we do to other medical disciplines, we will have reformed screening and referral practices to better meet patient needs, and chaplains will be better able to continually improve their practice by being able to answer their own questions though research literacy. I hope that all chaplains will see the value of research and pursue research literacy because they know that evidence-based practice will improve their professional outcomes.


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

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