I once visited a used bookstore with hundreds of books all claiming to be “spiritual.”  The sheer number of books on the subject prompted me to ask, "What do we mean by the term 'spiritual'?"

Caring for the spiritual needs of all ages has been a foundational theme of the church ever since Biblical times; however we need a workable model of spirituality for all ages. "We desire to present every person complete in Christ."

Here are a few examples of the countless attempts at defining spirituality. The World Health Organization (WHO) defined spiritual as the “human component that holds together the physical, psychological and social aspects.” Meraviglia (1999) defined spiritual as “the experiences and expressions of one’s spirit in a unique and dynamic process reflecting faith in God or a supreme being; a connectedness with oneself, others, nature or God; and an integration of all human dimensions" (p. 18).

A search of health-related literature finds that spirituality has been diversely defined using phrases like: religious systems of beliefs and values; meaning, purpose, and connection with others; nonreligious systems of beliefs and values; metaphysical or transcendental phenomena. (Sessanna et al., 2007).

Again, it would seem this term is complicated. Spirituality is an intrinsic aspect of humanity through which persons seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and experience relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred. At our core, humans are spiritual in that we alone among all creation ask questions of our existence.

Spirituality is expressed through beliefs, values, traditions, and practices.” Fitchett at al., (2002) suggests that “spiritual” describes “the dimension of life that reflects the need to find meaning in existence and in which we respond to the sacred (the transcendent) (p. 56).”  Hodge (2000) states that it is “an existential relationship with God (or perceived transcendence) that fosters a sense of meaning, purpose, and mission in life … this relationship produces … change …  which has a discernible effect on … relationship to self, others, and God” (p. 217).

Simply stated, spirituality addresses several core questions of life including: where did I come from; why am I here; and, where am I going? For those seniors nearing the end of life, spirituality is commonly associated with a need for forgiveness, reconciliation and affirmation of worth.  (Sepulveda et al., 2002). Senior adults want to address these questions in their life and spiritual care givers come alongside them to listen and join them in the journey. We seek to help them find answers to these three central questions.

One more question needs to be added to the three noted above. The disciples once wanted to know who Jesus really was; and He asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” For the evangelical chaplain, that remains the foundational question to probe? What does this resident think of Jesus? However, we need to be very sensitive to the timing and openness of the senior to even think about this question.


“Care,” in the literature on Pastoral Care and Counseling, includes: listening and being present;  acceptance;  building rapport using active listening, appropriate self-disclosure; responding to spiritual needs and spiritual pain / distress through reflection, offering support (common issues:  grief and loss, crisis, ethical and moral issues);  offering instruction;  facilitating decision-making;  offering prayer, Bible Study, Worship gatherings and celebrations of communion/eucharist/mass;  providing printed or recorded resources; facilitating connection with faith community; aiding in the processing of memories, emotions, relationships, questions (meaning / purpose of  life, personal worth, suffering).


Fitchett, G.,  Brady, M.J.,   Hernandez, L.,&   Cella, D. (2002).  Measuring spiritual well-being in people with cancer:  the functional assessment of chronic illness therapy – spiritual well-being scale. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 24 (1), 49-58.

Hodge, D.R. (2000). Spiritual Ecomaps:  A new diagrammatic tool for assessing marital and family spirituality.  Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26 (2), 217-218.

Meraviglia, M. G. (1999). Critical analysis of spirituality and its empirical indicators prayer and meaning in life. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 17 (1), 18-33.

Sepulveda, C., Marlin, A., Yoshida, T., & Ulrich, A. (2002). Palliative care:  The world health organization’s global perspective. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 24 (2), 91-96.

Sessanna, L., Finnell, D., &  Jezowski, M. A. (2007). Spirituality in nursing and health-related literature. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 25 (4).

Written by Rev. David Van Essen