Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research

The Dutch Chaplaincy Research Agenda: Identifying Relevant and Urgent Chaplaincy Research Themes

Carmen Schuhmann University for Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, The Netherlands

In 2021, the professional organization of chaplains in the Netherlands published the Dutch Chaplaincy Research Agenda 2021-2025. This is the very first research agenda in the domain of chaplaincy – at least in the Netherlands. Two years earlier, in 2019, the scientific committee of the professional organization had taken the initiative for developing a chaplaincy research agenda, given the profound and rapid developments that were – and are – going on in the field of chaplaincy and spiritual care. Some of these developments are specific for the Netherlands, for instance those related to the political decision in 2018 by the Dutch minister of health to provide funding for (research into) chaplaincy ‘at home’, where chaplains provide spiritual care to people in their home situation. Other developments are not restricted to the Netherlands, for instance the impact of secularization and increasing faith diversity on the field (Cadge & Sigalow, 2013; Glasner et al., 2022; Schuhmann & Damen, 2018); or the increase of research into chaplaincy and the call for more outcome research (Damen et al., 2020; Handzo et al., 2014).

Various motives played a role in the decision to work towards a chaplaincy research agenda. One motive was to create more focus and mass in chaplaincy research, in order to build knowledge regarding urgent issues and counter the risk of fragmentation in chaplaincy research. A second motive was to promote dialogue and (research) collaboration, between chaplains and various stakeholders, in particular other professionals, and clients. Thirdly, the aim was to promote dialogue among chaplains about their profession, and potentially even encourage them to engage in research. As the availability of funding largely decides what research is done, this may lead to a tendency in chaplaincy research to ‘follow the funding’. While this is not necessarily problematic in itself, it still seems important that chaplains, independently of the research agendas of funders, discuss in what direction they would like to see the profession evolve, what are their views of opportunities and challenges in the field, and what this implies for chaplaincy research.

The relevance of drawing up a chaplaincy research agenda became especially clear to me on February 1, 2019, during a symposium titled Building knowledge for chaplaincy in healthcare: Future directions, which celebrated the honorary doctorate that Prof. dr. George Fitchett had received from the University of Humanistic Studies. Here, the notion of a chaplaincy research agenda was mentioned in relation to a publication that had just appeared, featuring a Delphi study among 249 Dutch chaplains and chaplaincy leaders in which research priorities for health care chaplaincy in the Netherlands were identified (Damen et al., 2019). This showed that we did not need to start from scratch after we (André Mulder and myself, later joined by Martijn Stoutjesdijk and Sjaak Körver, on behalf of the scientific committee of the professional organization of chaplains in the Netherlands) decided to work on a chaplaincy research agenda. Our first step was to formulate thirteen preliminary research themes for the agenda, based on the information already available. Twelve of these were ‘societal themes’ – themes that reflect current societal concerns and developments such as worldview diversity, robotization1, and loneliness. Since we felt that theoretical reflections on chaplaincy also needed to have a place in the agenda, we added Fundamental research into the professional identity of chaplains as the thirteenth theme. We then conducted a Delphi study among 23 chaplains, whom we asked which of the preliminary research themes they would give priority, and what research themes they felt were missing. We also asked them to explain their answers. The 23 participants were selected through purposive sampling: we searched for chaplains who had a good overview of ongoing developments concerning chaplaincy in the Netherlands, and we aimed for inclusion of chaplains with various worldview backgrounds and from various working areas (hospitals, the military, prisons, etc.).2

Our Delphi study shows that all of the twelve societal research themes were considered to be relevant and urgent, except for the theme of robotization, which none of the participants mentioned as relevant or urgent in relation to chaplaincy research. Overall, no clear priorities emerged, with the exception of the theme Fundamental research into the professional identity of chaplains, which all participants designated as a research theme with high priority. The arguments that participants gave for prioritizing research into the professional identity of chaplains suggest that there is insecurity among chaplains concerning the question of how to characterize modern-day chaplaincy, and about the added value of chaplaincy. Participants felt that it was important to rethink chaplaincy, now that, due to current developments, the profession can – at least in the Netherlands – no longer be legitimized on the basis of religious representation within organizations.

Based on the results of the Delphi study, we decided to organize the research agenda in the following way (Figure 1 shows a schematic representation, in Dutch, of the agenda). We identified six central societal research themes; these are listed at the left side of the picture. We also identified four sets of ‘generic research questions’ that cover the question about the professional identity of chaplains, and that can be applied to each of the research themes; in the picture, these generic questions can be found on the right-hand side of the research themes

The six societal research themes that we included in the agenda are:3

  1. Worldview diversity: research within this theme addresses implications of for instance secularization and increasing faith diversity for chaplaincy.
  2. Spirituality in healthcare: research within this theme addresses the role of chaplaincy in interdisciplinary spiritual care, against the background of growing attention for spirituality in healthcare.
  3. Moral stress of professionals: research within this theme addresses questions concerning chaplaincy care in relation to for instance moral injury within the military or the police force, or moral stress of health care professionals.
  4. Collective adversity: research within this theme addresses questions concerning chaplaincy care in relation to disasters that affect communities. This may involve global disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change, but also events with a more local impact, for instance the earthquakes that occur in the north of the Netherlands due to gas extraction.
  5. Ethical issues at the beginning and the end of life: research within this theme addresses the role of chaplains concerning ethically charged issues like abortion and physician-assisted dying.
  6. Social marginalization and inclusion: research within this theme addresses the role of chaplains in caring for marginalized people and advancing social inclusion and social justice.

The four sets of generic questions that we formulated pertain to 1) needs for chaplaincy care, chaplaincy interventions and outcomes, and interprofessional collaboration; 2) levels of chaplaincy care (individual, organizational, societal); 3) roles that chaplains perform (for instance counselor, ethical advisor, celebrant); 4) competencies and training of chaplains. Taking these generic research questions into account in relation to the various research themes ensures that the question of how to understand the professional identity of chaplains resonates in research that is conducted into these themes. Application of the generic questions to the six themes leads to questions like, for instance: What is the impact of clients’ worldviews on their needs for chaplaincy care (first generic question applied to the first research theme)? What training do chaplains need in order to be able to promote social inclusion (last generic question applied to the last research theme)?

Obviously, this first attempt to arrive at a chaplaincy research agenda has its limitations. Our Delphi study did not result in a clear set of research priorities, so our selection of six central chaplaincy research themes for the coming five years may be questioned. Consequently, we decided to call this research agenda an ‘initial version’, and to emphasize the importance of periodic reassessment of the agenda over the coming years. A second limitation is related to the design of the Delphi study. We originally planned to extend our Delphi study beyond chaplains to various stakeholders, like clients, various health care professionals and policy makers. This turned out to be too ambitious a plan, partly due to the limited research time that we could invest in this project, and partly due to the large number of stakeholders that might be consulted given the increasing number of areas in which chaplains work. This last observation also points at questions that arose while we were working on the agenda: how broad should a chaplaincy research agenda be in order to have an impact? Should we rather aim for a separate Dutch chaplaincy research agenda for each of the separate areas in which Dutch chaplains work? Or should we, on the other hand, aim for an agenda that transcends national borders, an international chaplaincy research agenda?

These are questions for later. If anything, our Delphi study shows the relevance and urgence of an ongoing conversation between chaplains, between chaplains and stakeholders, and between chaplains and researchers, about the future of chaplaincy in a fast-changing world. If this research agenda in some way helps to move this conversation forward, an important objective of the agenda has been achieved. 


1‘Robotization’ refers to the way that more and more work is done by ‘intelligent machines’ and robots – in various settings, robots being used for instance to keep people who are lonely company, but also the use of drones in warfare etc. – which has many ethical aspects.

2The (Dutch) research report about the Delphi study can be found here: EindrapportValideringsonderzoekOnderzoeksagenda-GV.pdf (

3 The full (Dutch) research agenda can be found here: PowerPoint Presentation (


Cadge, W., & Sigalow, E. (2013). Negotiating religious differences: The strategies of interfaith chaplains in healthcare. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 52(1), 146-158.

Damen, A., Schuhmann, C., Leget, C., & Fitchett, C. (2020). Can outcome research respect the integrity of chaplaincy? A review of outcome studies. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, 26(4), 131-158. doi: 10.1080/08854726.2019.1599258

Damen, A., Schuhmann, C., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., & Leget, C. (2019). Research priorities for health care chaplaincy in the Netherlands: A Delphi study among Dutch chaplains. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy. doi: 10.1080/08854726.2018.1473833

Glasner, T., Schuhmann, C., & Kruizinga, R. (2022). The future of chaplaincy in a secularized society: A mixed-methods survey from the Netherlands. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy. doi: 10.1080/08854726.2022.2040894

Handzo, G. F., Cobb, M., Holmes, C., Kelly, E., & Sinclair, S. (2014). Outcomes for professional health care chaplaincy: An international call to action. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, 20(2), 43-53. doi: 10.1080/08854726.2014.902713

Schuhmann, C., & Damen, A. (2018). Representing the Good: Pastoral care in a secular age. Pastoral Psychology, 67,405–417

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