• empirical research report;
  • ethics;
  • interpersonal relations;
  • nursing;
  • professionalism;
  • religion;
  • social identity;
  • spirituality


Aim.  This paper is an exploration of the challenge of negotiating the highly personalized concept of spirituality within the public sphere of professional–patient interactions.

Background.  Spirituality has become increasingly prominent within the nursing discourse, and providing spiritual care is often positioned as an ethical obligation of care. However, bringing such a personal concept into the public domain of care creates some unique tensions and ethical risks.

Discussion.  Nurses bring three potentially competing identities to spiritual care encounters with patients. Firstly, they are professionals with a public trust in health promotion and restoration, including those areas that intersect with spiritual health. Secondly, they are citizens of a liberal society where non-judgmental pluralism as it relates to spirituality is enshrined. Thirdly, they are individuals who hold particular beliefs and values about spirituality. Each of these identities may result in particular, and potentially conflicting, approaches to spiritual care. Ultimately, the identity which nurses choose to adopt is often determined by how they view themselves in the spiritual care encounter, either as experts with legitimate authority to intervene in the spiritual lives of patients or as people in a shared relational encounter. Each of these approaches carries ethical risks, although the nature of these risks is different.

Conclusion.  The identities which nurses bring to spiritual care encounters have far-reaching implications for patient experiences in those encounters. Nurses who position themselves as experts run the risk of objectifying the spiritual, being experienced as coercive and transcending nursings’ competence. The work of Martin Buber is presented as a model that, while acknowledging competing identities, sets forth a vision of spirituality and spiritual care based upon relational reciprocity.