Healthcare professionals navigate a culturally and religiously diverse workplace. Each day, hospital chaplains and medical caregivers encounter a wide range of religious and spiritual commitments among the patients and families they seek to serve. Chaplain John Ehman notes, "Religious traditions are complex, and it can be impossible to predict how any one patient or family member may understand or apply them in the context of healthcare." For this reason, Ehman continues, "It is crucial for healthcare providers to encourage patients and family members to express how their religious and cultural values might influence personal needs, interaction with staff, and decisions about treatment."
Negotiating such religious diversity may be complicated by the fact that many chaplains and healthcare professionals are rooted in only one religious tradition, which may hinder their care. Hospital chaplain Russell Myers describes the work of the chaplaincy as navigating a "both/and world." Chaplains are grounded in a particular belief system while at the same time, encountering clients with a nearly infinite variety of religious expressions. The same dynamics are true for other healthcare professionals who seek to care for patients with a wide range of spiritual or religious convictions.
Trends in the changing religious landscape of North America underline the increasing religious diversity that shapes the context of contemporary healthcare. Recent studies by the Pew Research Center point to a rising percentage of spiritual "nones" who claim allegiance to no established religious tradition, a decreasing percentage of persons who identify as Christian, and increases among populations that bring greater spiritual and religious diversity to many communities.
How do chaplains and healthcare professionals offer compassionate care while engaging such religious diversity?
One way is to develop deeper awareness of one's own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of others. Professor Akpenpuun Joyce Rumun has suggested that by developing greater interreligious knowledge, "health professionals release the old stereotypes and prejudices that they have about certain religious beliefs and practices."
Healthcare workers can also engage religious diversity by developing an expanded sense of hospitality. Dr. Peter Youngblood seeks to integrate methods from interfaith scholars into his approach to interfaith chaplaincy. He proposes an "interpretive hospitality" in which a chaplain, "structures relations, spiritual assessments, and pastoral interventions without reducing the uniqueness of their client."
The Interreligious Chaplaincy Program at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California, builds practical skills in spiritual care and counseling while also providing specific interreligious training. Students can earn a Certificate in Interreligious Chaplaincy (designed to fulfill requirements for board-certified chaplaincy), which can be pursued independently or in conjunction with tradition-specific background and training through an MA in Islamic, Jewish, or Hindu Studies. The program builds the caregiving skills and interreligious understanding essential to the practice of traditional chaplaincy, yet also relevant to a wide variety of other social-service, healthcare, and advocacy contexts.
For Further Reading
"Influence of Religious Beliefs on Healthcare Practice" (2014) by Akpenpuun Joyce Rumun, Faculty of Social Sciences, Benue State University, Makurdi, Benue State, Nigeria.
"Interfaith Chaplaincy as Interpretive Hospitality" (2019) by Peter Ward Youngblood, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Interreligious Chaplaincy: Who are you, really? And what do you do?" (2018) by Russell Myers, DMin, pastor and board-certified chaplain by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC).
"Religious Diversity: Practical Points for Health Care Providers" (2012) by John Ehman, Pastoral Care Manager, Penn Medicine.
"Religious Landscape Study," (2015) by the Pew Research Center.