The Perkins Perspective | Features | Winter 2014

Connecting Health Care and Spiritual Care

By Dave Kwok


Most Christians agree that pursuing a close relationship with God and helping others to do the same are a core part of Christian identity. In 1 John, John goes so far as to inseparably link loving God and loving others. Yet too often affluent Christians find themselves isolated from the real needs of others, attempting to develop a closer relationship with God without meaningful opportunities to serve.

During my time on staff with an affluent church, our team encountered this dynamic all the time. “Service” was primarily in the context of the congregation, with interactions with the broader community limited to infrequent, episodic events.

Likewise, in health care, spiritual health is widely recognized as an important component of overall wellness. But our secular and scientific health care culture often comes up short when addressing health concerns that go beyond the physical body. And engaging spirituality in the health care setting is made more difficult in a pluralistic society sensitive to any activities perceived as proselytization.

Bridging a Great Divide

These dynamics together lead to a sharp and unproductive divide: medical issues are the domain of health care professionals and “spiritual issues” are the domain of faith communities and religious professionals. As a result, the health care setting is impoverished by the lack of attention to spiritual health, and faith communities are impoverished by the lack of opportunities for meaningful service.

What is appropriate spiritual care in a health care setting?

I am the executive director of HopeCentral, a new pediatric and behavioral health primary care clinic launching in South Seattle. At HopeCentral, caring for patients’ spirits is a foundational value that flows out of a commitment to provide excellent health care. Human beings are integrated creatures ― mind, body, and soul. We understand that it doesn’t serve patients well to exclude spiritual issues from their health care.

As a faith-based clinic, we desire to create a safe place where patients and providers can dialogue about spiritual issues and their effect on health.

We at HopeCentral also have a deep desire to provide the local church more opportunities to meet and serve neighbors in need so that untapped resources from the church can flow into health care and church congregations can be transformed by loving service.

But what is appropriate spiritual care in the health care setting? Since spiritual care is rarely offered, there are no obvious models for care. Without established models, our team has agreed on some basic values to guide us as we develop a culture of spiritual care.

We desire a culture that:

  • Creates transparency about our Christian faith and motivation for service.
  • Welcomes all patients regardless of faith or belief system with open-mindedness and respect.
  • Skillfully understands how spiritual beliefs and practices affect health.
  • Humbly recognizes our own fallibility and limitations and encourages forgiveness-seeking when there has been offense.
  • Advocates for healthy spiritual practice that
    • participates in community,
    • engages in choices of hope over despair,
    • and centers by means of contemplation, journaling, meditation, or prayer.

We work against a culture that:

  • Is unwelcoming to patients of diverse faiths and beliefs.
  • Makes patients feel pressured or judged.
  • Implies that patients must adopt Christian faith or practice in order to receive health services.
  • Is unwilling to learn from others.

We foresee that spiritual care will happen in the context of caring relationships in which trust has been built over time. The primary care setting is ideal for developing just such relationships. And there will be many opportunities for people from the church to be involved. Medical professionals, obviously, but also caring lay people who can walk with families through unfamiliar or difficult health issues, people who can help families address the broader issues of poverty, isolation, or brokenness that may be adversely affecting health.

For hundreds of years, Christians have been known for their care of the sick. But as the health care system has become more industrialized and secular, the church has lost its relevance as a health resource. At HopeCentral we want to reintroduce spiritual care as an asset in health care, accessing the healing power of Jesus Christ in service to a diverse and pluralistic community.

We believe there is tremendous potential for improved health outcomes through the offer of spiritual care. More importantly, we believe there is tremendous potential for the transformation of church communities and the community as a whole as the church serves in health care in Jesus' name.

Dave KwokDave Kwok is executive director of HopeCentral. He has spent 15 years in nonprofit and corporate management, and has an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and a BSE from Princeton University.

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