A hospital chaplain provides spiritual support in the hospital environment to patients, hospital staff, and family members. In the case of hospitals affiliated with a specific religious denomination, such as Catholic hospitals, the chaplain usually represents the same denomination, while other hospitals can choose chaplains from a variety of backgrounds. Many hospitals stress that although their chaplains belong to specific religious groups, the spiritual services provided are interfaith, meaning that people of all religious faiths will be respected, and that additional religious officiants can be provided upon request.
Chaplains can be found working in a number of environments. They may be fully ordained, as in the case of priests, pastors, and rabbis, or they may simply have received some training. Chaplainacy is often associated specifically with Christianity, but members of other faiths can and do act as chaplains.
In the case of a hospital chaplain, the chaplain works a shift in the hospital, often walking the halls to connect with people who might need spiritual support. He or she provides assistance for members of the staff who may be struggling with religious issues, and religious counseling is also offered to patients and family members. This person may lead religious services in the hospital's chapel or in patient rooms, and services such as Communion may also be offered.
Chaplains may only attend patients by request, or they may visit all patients in the hospital. Their goal is to provide spiritual support and counseling to help people who may be experiencing spiritual distress, and to bring in other religious practitioners if they are needed. For example, a Baptist chaplain might bring in a rabbi for a Jewish patient, or a Catholic priest for a Catholic patient. Nondenominational counseling is also available. Chaplains may also sit with dying patients and their families to provide support, and they counsel family members dealing with situations varying from sudden death to ethical struggles over organ donation.
In many cases, a hospital chaplain is affiliated with a professional organization of chaplains. Membership usually implies a minimum standard of religious education that has often been paired with special training in health care issues. In other instances, the chaplain may simply be a member of the local clergy who is brought in to a hospital to provide spiritual support by request.
Patients usually have the right to refuse the chaplain's services and to determine the degree of support and intervention provided by him or her. Some, for example, may appreciate a chaplain who acts as a patient advocate, while others may prefer a more hands-off approach in which the chaplain provides religious support but not medical advice or assistance.