Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling

Spiritual Care Week 2021: Well-Informed Care

By Ronald C. Oliver

Addressing the topic of the day, “Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research,” the chaplaincy profession has begun to catch-up to the need to establish an empirical foundation for itself. This, in my opinion, is a good step. 

What I want to speak to is the journey from where we’ve been to where we are going.

Ron Oliver

During seminary (MDiv, ThM and PhD; 1986-1993) I had but one course on how to interpret statistical data. The department that I was in allowed statistics to count as one of the four languages required for the PhD in the Psychology of Religion. I appreciate now how forward thinking that accommodation was. Notably, though, the intent of the accommodation was to ensure graduates could read the research produced by OTHER disciplines. 

I don’t have a memory that any of us were pushed to do our own empirical research—of course that could be a function of my poor awareness or faulty memory on my part. Whether it is or not, it’s not my recollection that research, i.e., quantitative research, was established in the curriculum beyond that one pass-fail prerequisite course. 

My prolonged CPE training (16 units; 1987-1995…clearly I was on the long trail) had a very particular focus to what I will broadly call research. The overwhelming focus of that journey was the understanding and integration of self which in turn guided the care I provided. 

Research was, if you will, particularly focused on intra- and inter-personal experiences. 

Certainly, I do not question the importance of that focus. Those who have spent much time seeking to discern what goes into the “me” and the “you” experiences appreciate the wonder, complexities and consternations of it all. For the OCD among us (my hand is raised), it’s a box that never gets checked as completed. For me, though, the unintended consequence was assuming that most all I needed to know in those me-you experiences could be found by looking within and between them. 

Truth/Insight/Relevance is there if it could be found, uncovered, revealed. Said another (less generous) way, in this model (admitted historical) the need for quantitative research is, well, low because all that’s needed is inherent in the encounter. Said in an even less generous way, “presence” to and with the other becomes the sine qua non for care.

The change that’s been impacting the profession for the past decade plus is the value of informing spiritual care with spiritual care’s own research. 

My experience with this has been through Transforming Chaplaincy ( whose mission “is to promote evidence-based spiritual care and integrate research into professional practice and education by fostering a culture of inquiry.”  (Full disclosure, I’ve been a member of the TC Advisory Committee since 2019).  The Association of Professional Chaplains (another disclosure, I was on the Board and then President 2018-2019), and other professional chaplaincy organizations have, somewhat recently, added the requirement that in order to maintain board certification, annual continuing education must include at least five (out of 50) hours of research related continuing ed. 

While this is a step in the right direction, my view is that it is not a step that’s big enough. 

If the profession is to be recognized as a peer with the disciplines alongside whom we work, we have a lot of catching up to do.  Certainly, we can bring our inter- and intra-personal skills to bear in the arena and doing so will be a value-add. However, we can’t stop there, we must ensure that our care is increasingly informed by relevant research that also integrates the human-to-human experiences at the core of our profession.

The Rev. Ronald C. Oliver is a CBF-Endorsed healthcare chaplain who serves as the SVP of Mission & Outreach at Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Ky.

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