At Adventist Health System, we are committed to providing whole person care to patients and their families. That means going above and beyond to care not just for their physical needs, but for their emotional and spiritual needs as well. The good news is that you don’t have to be a chaplain or have a theology degree to do this. It can be as easy as saying a quick prayer or offering a comforting touch.
As you consider some of the ways to provide spiritual care listed below, keep in mind that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each person you meet is in a different place in their spiritual journey. As you interact, imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and ask God for wisdom to support them in the way they need.
1. Take Your Cues from the Patient
Since patients are guests in our hospitals, it’s important to let them lead in every visit. Don’t try to bring up topics about church or religion. Instead, start by asking how they are and what brought them into the hospital. This gives them the opportunity to share what’s important to them.
Also pay attention to your patient’s nonverbal cues. Sometimes patients try to be nice by not speaking up when they need something. Others are in an uncomfortable situation that prevents them from clearly communicating how they want to be cared for. Before you can offer any sort of spiritual support, it’s important to first meet your patient’s physical needs, whether that means adjusting the bed, turning off the TV so they can have some quiet time, or helping them to the bathroom.
2. Demonstrate a Christ-like Attitude
Love your patients the way God loves you! Don’t just say you love someone, but truly love them and see the good in them. That means treating them like the person who is most dear to your heart, even if you disagree with what they say or how they treat you. Remember that love is not always a feeling. Sometimes it’s a choice to smile even if you don’t feel like it, make eye contact, listen well with a compassionate heart, and serve without expecting anything in return.
3. Ask the Patient How You Can Support Them Spiritually
One of the easiest ways to provide spiritual care is to simply ask patients how you can support them and then do your best to follow through on the request. For example, if your patient is a Greek Orthodox Christian and wants to see a priest before they go into surgery, call the Greek Orthodox Church in your community and ask if the priest would be willing to make a visit. Remember though not to promise your patient anything that you’re not sure you can deliver. Instead of guaranteeing a Greek Orthodox priest by 3 p.m., just say, “Let me look into that and see what can be arranged.”
If the priest is not available, offer to contact a chaplain or to pray with the patient.
4. Support Patients Within Their Own Faith Tradition
The point of providing spiritual care is not to convert patients to your religion; it’s to connect them with the divine if they want it. Remember as you interact with them that they are a captive audience, often confined to a hospital bed they don’t want to be in. In these circumstances, it’s always appropriate to demonstrate God’s love and compassion, but it’s not fair to tell patients what they should believe.
I know this is an area that can create internal conflict for caregivers who want to remain true to their own beliefs. My advice for you is this: Try your best to help patients within their own faith tradition, but always remain true to your conscience. For example, when I pray with patients who are not of the Christian faith, I make sure that the words I use do not conflict with my own beliefs.
Also remember that at the end of the day, people don’t convert people. Only God changes hearts.
5. Listen to Fears & Concerns Without Going into Your Own Stuff
When someone starts sharing their concerns with you, it’s easy to say, “I know how you feel,” and then launch into a story about one of your own experiences. Remember though, that you’re there to care for the patient and not the other way around. To provide emotional and spiritual support, I’ve found it’s much more helpful to name the emotions you hear patients or family members expressing and then ask a follow-up question. For example, you could say, “I hear a lot of fear in your words. Can you tell me where that’s coming from?” Or, “You seem to be very down. Can you share with me what’s going on?”
Don’t be offended if they don’t want to open up to you. Instead, just take it as a sign that the timing isn’t right.
6. Ask if You Can Pray with Them
Sometimes caregivers are unsure how or when to ask a patient if they’d like prayer. My general rule of thumb is this: If your patient is in distress, definitely ask if you can pray for them. I usually say something like, “Mrs. Jones, would you mind if I have a short prayer for you?” The word “short” is important because it signals to the patient that even though they don’t know what you’re going to say, they can probably tolerate it because at least it will be short.
7. Share an Encouraging Thought or Word
Scripture has an amazing way of uplifting spirits and encouraging people. One of my favorite Bible verses that I like to share with patients is from Psalm 46:10. It says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” When I share this passage with patients who are worried, I ask them to be calm, take a deep breath, acknowledge that they are in the presence of God, and that God will take care of them.
What passages of Scripture resonate with you? I recommend memorizing two or three so that when the opportunity arises, you can pull from the well of spiritual thoughts that have encouraged you and use them to encourage others.
8. Use the Gifts of Presence & Touch
Early in my career as a chaplain, I struggled to understand the “ministry of presence.” When I was with a person who lost a loved one or whose loved one wasn’t doing well, I wanted to say a lot of things to comfort them. I’ve since realized that sometimes people don’t want words. They just want to know that someone is there who cares. Your presence alone can provide this care to a person who is hurting. You are simply representing God in that moment by just being there.
Touch is another thing that can help provide this reassurance. Simply ask, “Is it okay if I hold your hand?” or “Is it okay if I give you a hug?”
9. Join a Team that Supports Spiritual Care
If you want to work in an environment where you’re encouraged to provide whole person care, consider joining our team at Adventist Health System. We’re always looking for talented team members who view healthcare as ministry, and are eager to help you use your talents to bless others.