Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

Chaplains Must Be Involved in Rigorous Continuing Education Anchored to Research

Ronald C. Oliver, PhD, MBA, BCC, System Vice President, Mission & Outreach, Norton Healthcare, Louisville, Kentucky

Here’s a startling claim: Medical knowledge is now doubling every 73 days. Yes, that’s what he said, “73 days” (Densen, 2011).  So, what that means is that medical knowledge doubles every baseball, football, or basketball season. According to Densen, the pace of expansion has quickened dramatically, “It is estimated that the doubling time of medical knowledge in 1950 was 50 years; in 1980, 7 years; and in 2010, 3.5 years.” For those learning medicine, “What was learned in the first 3 years of medical school will be just 6% of what is known at the end of the decade from 2010 to 2020. Knowledge is expanding faster than our ability to assimilate and apply it effectively; and this is as true in education and patient care as it is in research.”

The implications for spiritual care professionals are both interesting and daunting. Among many implications, the discipline must realign its sources of authority.  For decades clinical training has focused on and even prioritized as authoritative one’s “sense of the moment” as the priority resource for connecting with and assisting the patient/client/counselee. Introspection, reflecting on “Where did that come from?” and “How does that make you feel?” have been some of the core processes and questions of this methodology. It is as if the plan/answer is located within and can be unlocked via an introspective process. Before some critique my critique, let me say that I don’t dismiss the importance of the introspective and integrative process. What I’m arguing for is adding research and data lenses to the schema. For too long pastoral practitioners have relied on the introspective route without much thought given to the hard work of the hard sciences. This has to change.

So, to that end, the professional certifying organizations must increase the number of research-oriented hours needed to maintain certification. My board certification is granted by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc. (BCCI) and requires that just five hours of my annual fifty hours of continuing education to be in the domain of research. Especially for chaplains working in healthcare, given the expansion of knowledge previously noted, this, quite simply, is not enough to ensure that BCCs remain informed and, more importantly:  relevant. For a number of years, I served on the Association of Professional Chaplains Board of Directors; a recurring complaint we heard was that fifty hours is too many and five hours of research is too much. The profession must normalize and expect its professionals to be involved in rigorous, relevant and on-going continuing education anchored to research.

Finally, let me argue the other side and start with a quote from David Ogilvy (1963) who commented on business executives’ reliance on statistics over judgment by saying: “They are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.” A spiritual care practitioner that relies only on research will be a technician conveying the warmth and empathic regard of stainless steel. Just as we must not be guided solely by insights from introspection, neither can we forgo that challenging process and rely solely on research. Integration of both is required to ensure the relevance of the profession.

Densen P (2011). Challenges and opportunities facing medical education. Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, 122:48-58.

Ogilvy D (1963). Confessions of an advertising man. New York, NY, Atheneum.

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