Spiritual Care in
Special to the Journal By
Rev. Tim Dean and Rev. Christopher Szarke
are sometimes surprised to learn that a hospital chaplain may be part of the
team of professionals involved in their care and support. Spiritual care in the
hospital setting is rooted in the understanding that our beliefs and values can
profoundly affect the way in which we cope with illness and its treatment. This
view is recognized by The Joint Commission, which accredits more than 20,000
health-care organizations in this country and requires that hospitals offer
support for the spiritual needs of their patients in addition to providing
What is the role
of a hospital chaplain?
Our role is to
assess a patient’s needs and determine how we can provide meaningful support to
patients, families, and loved ones. Hospital chaplains approach people without
a distinct agenda of our own. Rather, ours is a ministry of accompaniment. We
seek to establish a connection, not necessarily to us as clergy, but more
deeply to the patient’s own resources. Hospitalization can be quite
disorienting, and by helping patients connect to their own sources of strength while
in the hospital they tend to feel more grounded.
How does tending
to spiritual needs impact healing?
We don’t know for
certain just how spiritual practice influences the healing process. However, if
you think about spirituality as anything that gives a person meaning, purpose,
and a sense of well-being, then it becomes easier to see the connection between
physical health and emotional health. In the hospital setting spiritual care is
about supporting emotional health and reducing stress and anxiety, all of which
encourages healing. But healing isn’t always physical. It may also include
reconciliation, interpreting matters of the spirit, and being at peace with
What if I am not
a religious person?
not necessarily about religion, though religious beliefs and rituals are some
of the ways people experience and express their spirituality. As hospital
chaplains we try to lean in, to seek an understanding of what a patient is
experiencing. This can be a deeply humanizing experience. It helps people feel honored
and valued and may not have anything to do with a specific religious belief or
How do I make my
wishes known about spiritual care in the hospital?
Any staff person
can make a referral to the chaplains upon request. In addition, when patients
are admitted to the hospital they are asked to rate how important a chaplain
visit is during their hospital stay. Some feel a visit is very important, while
others do not want a visit at all. This input, along with participation in
daily rounds and staff feedback, guides us.
How do you help
people who hold very different beliefs?
encounter people from many different religious traditions and cultures. We
aren’t experts in all faiths. Part of our role is to remain curious and to
encourage people to share their beliefs. In this way, we can learn about what
holds value for them. And often by speaking about their beliefs to us, patients
can begin to help themselves. We can also aid patients by helping them connect
with a clergyperson from their own faith practice.
Hospitals can be
very scary places. The hospital chaplains at Cayuga Medical Center want to
welcome people with respect and in ways that give and restore dignity. We
function as advocates for our patients to help ensure that their values are
understood and honored by the staff. Our goal is to offer a calm presence of
support, respect, and generous hospitality to people of all faith traditions
and to help however we can as patients and families navigate what is ahead.
Dean, director of Spiritual Care, and Reverend Christopher Szarke, are
chaplains on staff at Cayuga Medical Center. They are assisted in their work by
Reverend Kate O’Neal on Saturdays. Chaplains are on-call for emergencies at all
times and can be reached through the medical center’s switchboard at (607)