This past summer, I began a new call in ministry as a hospital chaplain. While four years ago I served as a resident hospital chaplain where I spent a year learning about hospital chaplaincy and spiritual care skills, I found myself feeling called back to chaplaincy and started providing spiritual care not just as a part-time reservist chaplain for the Air Force. But now I am serving as a chaplain full time for a local hospital in Northwestern Ohio.
Serving as a chaplain in the United States Air Force and as a hospital chaplain can seem vastly different but at the same time, there are a lot of similarities. For starters, while almost always the patients whom I provide spiritual care in the hospital are dealing with a health crisis, those in the Air Force who seek spiritual care are dealing with a personal crisis related to their relationships, workplace, or personal life.
Yet, while I sometimes approach spiritual care from a different perspective since a patient in the hospital dealing with a recent cancer diagnosis and airmen who may be going through a divorce are different issues, a chaplain in both fields is essentially acting in the same role. And that is they are exercising the art of spiritual listening.
No matter if a chaplain is in a military uniform or has a hospital chaplain badge on their shirt, they start their day by adhering to the same code of ethics. And that is not to impose their own religious or spiritual beliefs on others. Rather, chaplains seek to help affirm whatever value system they have which provides hope and resiliency amidst their illness or personal struggle.In both fields, this allows for tremendous diversity in those whom you are providing spiritual care and those who are also chaplains.
For military and clinical healthcare chaplains, you will find those who identify as chaplains coming from vastly diverse religious and faith traditions. Since the few years I have been in chaplaincy, I have worked alongside Jewish Rabbis, Buddhist Nuns, Islamic Imams, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Catholic Priests. While all of us as religious leaders in our own different faith traditions have different value systems and ways we see the divine in our lives, there is mutual respect we have for one another. Even more so, we all seek to provide that same mutual respect to those whom we provide spiritual care.
According to the Pew Research Center, in a 2009 recent survey about the diversity you will find in the United States Armed Forces, 20% identify as Catholic (Christian), 11.05% as Mainline (Christian), 17.56% as Baptist (Christian), .45% Muslim, 3.61% as humanist, and 25.50% with no religious preference. And much like what you in the United States general population, 25% evangelical (Christian), 20% Catholic, 1.9% Jewish, .9% Muslim, and 22.8% as “no affiliation.”
The diversity you will find in those serving or just in the general population who come through doors of your local hospital reflects the importance it is for chaplains to not only be respectful, but also aware of the religious diversity you will encounter outside your own faith community. It also reflects for the need for chaplains to have a basic understanding of the various religious traditions and how to provide spiritual care for individuals of various faith traditions.
Inside the Maxwell Air Force Basic Chaplain Corps school house you will find a worship room which reflects the various traditions of different religions and the elements which are important to people of those religions. For military and hospital chaplains, being aware of how to accommodate the needs of those from various religious traditions is essentially important.
For example, if a patient in a hospital dies that was a Muslim, there are certain preparatory actions which the hospital chaplain needs to make so the nursing staff is aware of the preparation for the body to be released to the family for burial. And for military chaplains, providing a space and a prayer rug for a Muslim soldier, sailor, or airmen, and pointing it in the way of Mecca is a requirement for a military chaplain in order to accommodate the religious need in uniform.
Another area of diversity which will be even more prevalent for military and hospital chaplains to accommodate is those who identify as religious “nones.” Especially, since this religious identification largely reflects those from the millennial generation who do not indentify as being part of any religious tradition.
According to another Pew Research Center survey, 35% of millennials do not have religious identification but still have strong spiritual beliefs. And while this change in religious identification equivocates to the decrease in Sunday church attendance and those being part of religious services, it allows those in spiritual care and chaplaincy the ability to provide spiritual care out in the community to a vastly diverse population while also respecting the religious and even the non religious beliefs of those whom they are providing spiritual care.
For those of us in chaplaincy, the work we do in providing spiritual care is continuing to grow. And while faith communities and churches will see a shift as individuals, especially millennials, do not tend to subscribe to any one religious tradition nor seek to be part of a particular faith communities, they do much like those who serve and are in hospitals, find themselves wrestling with the big questions about the existence of spiritual divine and how they can find hope from a set of beliefs especially when faced with a personal or health challenge.
This is what makes the purpose of spiritual care and the work of chaplains so important. Because no matter how the one seeking spiritual care may identify themselves, the one providing spiritual care must provide compassion while also reinforcing the belief system to those whom they are providing care.