Spiritual Caregiving in the Hospital: Windows to Chaplaincy Ministry

Reviewed by Glen R. Horst

The Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 2 (Spring 2007)

Leah Dawn Bueckert and Daniel S. Schipani (eds.). Spiritual Caregiving in the Hospital: Windows to Chaplaincy Ministry. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2006.

Leah Dawn Bueckert, a hospital chaplain, and Daniel Schipani, a professor of pastoral care and counseling, begin by signaling their intention to build on Holst’s Hospital Ministry: The Role of the Chaplain Today,1 a classic in the field of hospital chaplaincy. They plan to describe and acclaim hospital chaplaincy as a unique, essential, and rewarding vocation, and in this they succeed admirably. What results is a welcome addition to the literature about spiritual care in healthcare settings.

Part 1 explores the unique healing role of spiritual care providers within the interdisciplinary context of the hospital. Essays in this section present hospital chaplaincy as a profession requiring disciplined preparation and demonstrated competency. Jan K. Kraus’s essay sets the tone for the book. She draws on biblical role models to illuminate her vocational journey and pastoral role. In doing so she models an action-reflection style of theological reflection that improvises creatively within the bible-centered Anabaptist–Mennonite tradition. Marvin Shank’s essay which follows presents competency as an expression of discipleship. As Shank explores the role of clinical pastoral education in the formation of chaplains, many of the book’s central themes emerge – spiritual similarities in religious diversity, personal stories and soul listening, engaging intense feelings, effective boundaries, and collaboration in community.

Other essays in Part 1 explore the role of chaplains on interdisciplinary teams, competent hospital visiting by pastoral ministers and chaplain volunteers, differences between public and religiously affiliated hospitals, and cultural competency. Buried in these chapters on the structure and framework of chaplaincy is a little gem by Helen Wells O’Brien about the chaplain as bearer and giver of blessing. Another is Clair Hochstetler’s appendix on asking good questions in patient visits. The section ends with a chapter on self-care reminding those who provide spiritual care of the common ground they share with those who receive it.

In Part 2 we hear the voices of chaplains who provide spiritual and religious care to patients, families, and staff. Their stories draw us into situations of crisis, death, grief, and illness, and their reflections invite us to grapple with the emotional, ethical, spiritual, and theological issues emerging in the midst of suffering. Their descriptions of the possibilities and limitations experienced by spiritual healers are both empowering and humbling.

The theme of care of caregivers reemerges near the end of this section, in Sherry Sawatsky-Dyck’s brief emphasis on soul care for the caregiver (86f.) and Robin Weldon Walton’s chapter on caring for staff. His description of the chaplain’s role in addressing medical mistakes is timely, and his integration of the chaplain’s prophetic voice with the healing and supportive dimensions of the role enlarges what is often regarded as a person-centered role to include the systemic.

In Part 3 the editors lay out the foundations and guiding principles for hospital chaplaincy. Their four essays describe chaplains as reflective practitioners and pastoral theologians, emphasize holistic care and an ethic of care as the moral context for spiritual care, and point the way toward interfaith communication and care. In my estimation, the chapter on the ethic of care, which focuses on mutual interdependence and responsible caring, is pivotal. The rest of the book is a witness to the demands, expressions, and blessings of this approach to spiritual care.

The chapter on interfaith spiritual care that concludes the book convincingly demonstrates that while this volume was unapologetically written within the North American Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition it has avoided the danger of becoming a parochial piece. The writers urge chaplains to claim their unique role as facilitators of interfaith communication and describe the necessary virtues, attitudes, and skills. They demonstrate that Mennonite-Anabaptist perspectives are not only capable of staying abreast of developments in professional chaplaincy, but also of leading the way – no small achievement for a faith tradition that has at times questioned the possibility of faithful pastoral ministry in public institutions!

Bueckert and Schipani and the fifteen chaplains from Canada and the United States contributing to this book have provided windows for learning from those who give and receive chaplaincy ministry. The editors’ belief that “chaplains, pastors, health care professionals, and other caregivers, whether in training or already practicing, will find it valuable” (2) is well-founded. I will use this book not only for personal reference but as a resource in my work as a supervisor of clinical pastoral education.


1 Lawrence Holst, ed., Hospital Ministry: The Role of the Chaplain Today (New York: Crossroad, 1985). Glen R. Horst, Coordinator, Spiritual and Religious Care, Riverview Health Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Glen R. Horst, Coordinator, Spiritual and Religious Care, Riverview Health Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba