Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Mapping Chaplaincy Research: The Transforming Chaplaincy FY21 Annual Report – George Fitchett

Over the Summer we compiled the Transforming Chaplaincy FY21 Annual Report. As you will see in the Report, in FY21 Transforming Chaplaincy, along with our colleagues and partners, published 16 peer-reviewed papers and two book chapters. We and our partners have over a dozen research projects underway examining spiritual care in the pandemic, factors associated with healthcare staff stress and resilience, CPE and emotional intelligence, and more. Our 7 Research Networks have over 1,000 participants who are advancing their research literacy in specific clinical areas and developing new ideas for spiritual care research. Our Research Literacy courses (RL 101 and 102) had 149 participants. We sponsored or co-sponsored 24 webinars that had over 8,000 participants; 10 of our archived webinars had more than 4,000 views. It was a productive year and we are grateful for the support of our lead partner Ascension, as well as all the people who have collaborated with us.

As I looked over our past year’s work, I thought it would be interesting to compare it to the review of spiritual care research published by Emmanuelle Poncin and colleagues in 2020. This Swiss team searched for articles about spiritual care authored by chaplains or theologians published between 2000 and 2018. Their search yielded 199 articles and chapters. They grouped the articles in five major themes: 1) chaplains’ practices (36% of the articles); 2) spirituality and illness, including spiritual struggle (25%); 3) research, including the promotion of spiritual care research, methodological advice and research about spiritual assessment and spiritual screening (18%), 4) the impact of spiritual care on patients, caregivers, chaplains or other healthcare professions (13%); and 5) healthcare professionals’ attitudes and practices related to spiritual care (8%). Slightly more than half the articles (55%) included primary data, mostly about patients; this included qualitative studies (24%), quantitative studies (18%) and studies using mixed methods (15%). The remainder of the articles were “based on theoretical discussions and informal analyses—informed by authors’ personal experiences and anecdotal evidence” (p. 19).

My quick calculation of the themes of the 18 articles and chapters in our Annual Report identified 61% about chaplaincy practices, 11% about spirituality and illness, 6% about research, and 22% about impact. The articles about chaplaincy practice included one theory of chaplaincy (Ragsdale & Desjardins, 2020) and 10 papers that used quantitative or qualitative methods. One of the two articles about spirituality and illness highlights the important role of psychospiritual development (faith development) in coping with life stresses (Usset et al., 2020). The proportion of articles about the impact of spiritual care in our Annual Report (22%) is higher than the 13% the review by Poncin and colleagues. These include a description of the feasibility and acceptability of telechaplaincy (Sprik et al., 2020) and the report by Beth Muehlhausen and colleagues (2020) of high levels of satisfaction with spiritual care services by 452 patients and family members in Ascension hospitals in Indiana. Another quick calculation shows that more than half of our on-going research is about chaplaincy practices. We have additional on-going work in the areas of spirituality and illness, research, and impact of spiritual care. None of the research published in the past year was about spiritual care by health care professionals and that is not a focus of any current research.

Based on their review, Poncin and colleagues made three recommendations for future spiritual care research: 1) focus on documenting and improving practices, rather than seeking to justify them; 2) combine theoretical analysis with empirical inquiry; and 3) “disentangle chaplaincy practice from research” through collaboration with non-chaplaincy researchers. Strengths of our recent and on-going research includes describing and critically evaluating chaplaincy practice and collaborating with non-chaplain colleagues. As others have observed (Galek et al., 2009), chaplaincy practice has not been theory-driven, thus combining theoretical analysis with empirical inquiry remains a challenge for the profession.  

In the past year our Advisory Committee developed a Vision and Mission statement for Transforming Chaplaincy: Vision – We envision a future when chaplaincy is formed, informed, and transformed by evidence-based practice. Mission – The mission of Transforming Chaplaincy is to promote evidence-based spiritual care and integrate research into professional practice and education by fostering a culture of inquiry. A review of our recent and current research described in the FY21 Annual Report indicates that we are focused on our Mission and are making good progress toward achieving this Vision.


Galek K, Flannelly KJ, Jankowski KR, Handzo GF. A methodological analysis of chaplaincy research: 2000-2009. J Health Care Chaplain. 2011;17(3-4):126-45. doi: 10.1080/08854726.2011.616167.

Muehlhausen, B. L., Foster, T., Smith, A. H., & Fitchett, G. (2021). Patients’ and loved ones’ expectations of chaplain services. J Health Care Chaplain, 1–15.

Poncin E, Brandt PY, Rouiller F, Drouin M, Dandarova Robert Z. Mapping the healthcare chaplaincy literature: an analytical review of publications authored by chaplains and theologians between 2000 and 2018. J Health Care Chaplain. 2020 Jan-Mar;26(1):16-44. doi: 10.1080/08854726.2019.1593722.

Ragsdale JR, Desjardins CM. Proposing religiously informed, relationally skillful chaplaincy theory. J Health Care Chaplain. 2020 Dec 28:1-16. doi:10.1080/08854726.2020.1861533. Epub ahead of print.

Sprik, P., Keenan, A. J., Boselli, D., Cheeseboro, S., Meadors, P., & Grossoehme, D. (2020). Feasibility and acceptability of a telephone-based chaplaincy intervention in a large, outpatient oncology center. Supportive Care in Cancer, 29(3), 1275–1285.

Usset, T. J., Gray, E., Griffin, B. J., Currier, J. M., Kopacz, M. S., Wilhelm, J. H., & Harris, J. I. (2020). Psychospiritual developmental risk factors for moral injury. Religions, 11(10), 484.

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