Defining Hospital Chaplaincy

Rooted in theological integrity and sacred traditions, we minister to the human condition to foster individual and corporate healing, meaning and hope.
—Spiritual care mission at Abbott Northwestern

On the Abbott Northwestern Hospital website, the spiritual care services provided by chaplains at the hospital are neatly laid out. 

Spiritual health providers are available to patients and their loved ones for support, comfort, guidance and advocacy. They respect all religious or spiritual preferences and collaborate with hospital staff to give patients the best care possible including:

•attending to the spiritual and emotional well-being of patients and their loved ones
•listening to and assisting patients in making meaning of their health care experience
•providing spiritual guidance, devotions, rituals and sacraments
•offering compassion and counseling in the midst of injury, illness and frightening life changes
•contacting places of worship and clergy or other spiritual leaders
•consulting on ethical issues and health care decisions
•providing spiritual and emotional support for hospital staff.1
—Spiritual care services at Abbott Northwestern

All of the hospital chaplains interviewed for this project described their work in myriad ways, but none of their explanations fit the boundaries of the dictionary definition. The description of care services provided by Abbott Northwestern is more comprehensive, but likewise unable to capture the complexity of a chaplain’s work. Reverend Ann Bergstrom, a chaplain at the Walker Methodist senior care communities in Minneapolis, used the metaphor of a duck to describe her work.

The role of a chaplain is to be a quiet, peaceful, disarming presence above water, to provide a refuge on the outside even though you might be paddling frantically below.
—Rev. Ann Bergstrom

  1. "Spiritual care," Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Allina Health, last accessed June 15, 2021,

Reverend Denise Dunbar-Perkins describes her role and common misconceptions about hospital chaplains.

Show Transcription

I'm a non-threatening entity and, even more importantly, I'm not some Christian trying to get them to believe in Jesus. And that would be the reputation—the two reputations that chaplains have. Most of them over the years, in a hospital setting, have been Christian. So they're worried about, you know, having, telling people at the end of life—you know, they grew up Jewish, they were Jewish, and some chaplain walking into the room saying, 'We've got to make sure you believe in Jesus.' Not really appropriate. Now that's not something that we have in this day and age; I would like to think we don't, bsut that's a reputation that has been over the years. The other thing is, you have to know when to engage patients. Because there's the other reputation that chaplains have. I generally—when I worked at oncology, especially—when a person was newly diagnosed, I generally did not go in the room for at least 24 hours unless they specifically asked for me. Can you imagine why? The doctor comes in and says, 'You have stage IV breast cancer. We're going to be giving you chemo and the treatments and then the next stage is radiology and, you know, and then the doctor leaves the room, and then you show up and say, 'Hi, I'm the chaplain.' And I'm [laughs] and you know, it's like, 'Should I plan your funeral now?' you know, people ... And so you have to measure how you engage people and when you say ... And sometimes I will go in a room and even though I have my name here and it says 'Chaplain,' I gauge when I say I'm the chaplain.

Chaplains in the large health care system that operates Abbott Northwestern, Allina Health, must have, or be working towards, a Master of Divinity degree, as is the case in other networks nationwide. In some instances, they must also be ordained in a religious tradition. Chaplain statements such as this one from Reverend Denise Dunbar-Perkins, who worked as a staff chaplain at Abbott Northwestern from 2004 to 2017, indicate that hospital chaplaincy in its modern form focuses on the human patient and their experiences in a time of crisis rather than on any one religion or theology.

I'm a non-threatening entity and, even more importantly, I'm not some Christian trying to get them to believe in Jesus.
—Rev. Denise Dunbar-Perkins