British cite importance of hospital chaplains

By her own admission, British hospital chief executive Lesley Doherty isn't a particularly religious person.

But ask why her hospital and other publicly-funded National Health Service organizations across the United Kingdom provide professional chaplaincy services and she is unequivocal.

"Spirituality, in its holistic form, is an important part of health and well-being. Chaplains are an integral part of everything here," said Doherty, who heads the 658-bed Royal Bolton Hospital and community-care services assisting some 263,000 people in England's northwest. "Most people we deal with have a faith. We feed them (in the hospital), so why wouldn't we attend to their spiritual needs as well?"

When Doherty was a specialist nurse on a pediatric ward many years ago and a 3-year-old boy died of meningitis, a Methodist minister opened her eyes to what a difference skilled spiritual care can make.

Watching how he interacted with the child's parents was an experience that has stayed with her to this day.

"He gave me an example of how to speak in a situation of stress and bereavement. &ellipsis; What really impressed me was that he didn't say all that much, but I saw great compassion in him," remembered Doherty.

The Rev. Neville Markham, Methodist minister and part-time staff chaplain at Royal Bolton, said it is not just in a crisis, but in a wide range of illnesses, that good spiritual care can make a difference.

"People aren't just things to be repaired and fixed.So many factors affect people's ability to recover and cope," Markham said. "Spiritual care helps support those things you can't sort out with just medication and procedures."

The Rev. Neil Gray, Royal Bolton's head chaplain of 24 years, said the National Health Service has talked for many years about taking a holistic approach to patient care.

"We know our minds and belief systems affect the way we deal with illness and health crisis," said Gray.

His multifaith chaplaincy team - which includes four Methodists - combines specialist health-care chaplaincy training with diverse cultural and religious expertise. That combination enables the hospital to serve a diverse range of patients, families and staff around the clock.

Studies show chaplaincy can make a difference

Moulton converses with the Rev. Neil Gray, Bolton's head chaplain and the Rev. Graham Culter, a British Methodist parish minister and Bolton chaplain.
Moulton converses with the Rev. Neil Gray, Bolton's head chaplain, and the Rev. Graham Culter, a British Methodist parish minister and Bolton chaplain.

A Dec. 6, 2011, Wall Street Journal article cited studies of U.S. patient experience showing a chaplain's visit could result in less patient anxiety, shorter hospital stays and higher satisfaction.

It also reported on a Journal of General Internal Medicine study that found of 3,000 patients interviewed over a three-year period at the University of Chicago Medical Center, 41 percent said that they wanted to discuss religious and spiritual concerns. However, only half of that group reported actually having had the opportunity for such a conversation.

Within the past several months, the U.K. National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), in consultation with the Department of Health, published new quality standards to ensure spiritual and religious care for all patients receiving end-of-life care is available 24/7.

But the need for spiritual care is being acknowledged and addressed for more than just the end of life. Increasingly, medical training for both nurses and doctors includes courses on spirituality and health.

The Rev. Doug Smith, a United Methodist pastor in the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference, worked as part-time chaplain at Royal Bolton Hospital for a number ofyears. He said he felt staff welcomed and appreciated for his presence and contributions, whether he was doing routine visits on a specialist cardiac ward or responding to an emergency in the middle of the night.

"Health-care staff were very supportive," Smith said. He also said he "thoroughly enjoyed" working in multifaith chaplaincy teams that included Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist chaplains as well as those from various Christian traditions.

Financial crisis threatens chaplaincy

As the global financial crisis has put pressure on public services in the United Kingdom, the Rev. Mark Stobart, who heads the British College of Health Care Chaplaincy, said chaplaincy is an "easy target" for budget cuts because not all health-care managers recognize it as a "core service."

He said some question the need for professional staff chaplaincy departments, suggesting local parish clergy provide religious care when requested.

Stobart disagrees, arguing that registered, specialist-trained health-care chaplains are key to providing appropriate, supervised care to a wide range of people and their families during very vulnerable periods in their lives.

"In the health service, you need to know there is a set standard for service and practice," he said.

"Just because you are a successful parish priest doesn't mean you have what it takes to be a hospital chaplain," said Doherty. "I've seen that myself. It's a different scenario altogether. Hospital chaplaincy is a sub-speciality, and it isn't for everyone."

Jim Dobbin, a Member of Parliament, served on the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Healthcare Chaplaincy. He said, "Human beings are complex. We're body, mind and soul, and we function best when all our parts are being cared for by experts."

Dobbin believes professional chaplaincy provision makes good economic sense, especially at a time of austerity when staff cuts have reduced the opportunities for "quiet, reassuring chat with patients."

"We can actually play a role in reducing health-care costs by reducing patient stress and helping them to cope or recover more quickly," said Gray. "We deal with crisis situations on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute, basis. And we provide that support, not only to patients and families of many faiths and no particular faith, but also to health-care staff. People count on us, and they tell us over and over again what we do makes a difference in their lives."

*LaCamera, a United Methodist minister, is a freelance journalist who also works as a hospital and mental health chaplain in Britain's national health service.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

Like what you're reading? Support the ministry of UM News! Your support ensures the latest denominational news, dynamic stories and informative articles will continue to connect our global community. Make a tax-deductible donation at

Sign up for our newsletter!

Mission and Ministry
Tim Tanton (center, in red), chief news and information officer for United Methodist Communications, shares updates with African communicators and other UMCom staff during the 2019 General Conference. World Press Freedom Day, observed May 3, commemorates journalists and highlights the difficulties they face while reporting truth. File photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News

World Press Freedom Day and the church

Tim Tanton with United Methodist News talks about giving voice to the voiceless and why freedom of information is essential not only for society but for the church.
General Church
Delegates from the Philippines and Southeast Asia sing during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Nearly 300 Filipino United Methodists joined a virtual conversation March 16 to talk about the Christmas Covenant and other plans for the future of The United Methodist Church. More webinars are planned for church members in Africa and Europe. File photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

Restructuring legislation gets a hearing

The drafters of the Christmas Covenant are leading webinars in the Philippines, Africa and Europe about their proposal for changing the denomination’s global structure.
Mission and Ministry
A man receives help from the Miss Stone Center. Despite the many challenges of 2020, the leaders and workers of the Miss Stone Center in Strumica, a diaconal facility of The United Methodist Church in North Macedonia, were able to care for more than 200 people without interruption. Photo by Christina Cekov, Strumica.

North Macedonia ministry provides hope during pandemic

Though COVID-19 changed the lives of many, leaders of a United Methodist diaconal facility in North Macedonia, have been able to provide care without interruption.