Institute for Spirituality and Health

By: Allison Wang

Type: General Entry

Published: June 29, 2022

Updated: June 29, 2022

The Institute for Spirituality and Health (ISH), originally named the Institute of Religion, was formed in 1955 in Houston by a board of trustees made up of many prominent Houstonians and became a member of the Texas Medical Center (TMC) that same year. The institute was a nondenominational program to “blend religious ministry, teaching, researching, and holistic care of the patients in the TMC.” The building that originally housed the institute was designed by John H. Freeman and located in the center of the TMC on the corner of Bertner and Wilkins streets. In 2001 Tropical Storm Allison flooded and irreparably damaged the institute building, and the ISH moved to a Methodist Hospital property as part of a 200-year lease. Within the Houston community, ISH serves as a meeting ground for people of different world views and religions and allows them to consider the often-polarized relationship between science/medicine and spirituality/faith. The goals of the institute can be divided into three different phases, with its focus shifting from religious teaching in the form of chaplaincy training, to medical ethics, and more recently to the integration of religion and health in the TMC and larger community.

The institute’s first director, Dawson Bryan, a previous pastor of St. Paul’s Methodist Church, spearheaded the education efforts of the institute. ISH was the first to establish a nationally-accredited program to provide chaplains and ministerial students with clinical-theological training in how to care for patients in hospital settings and medical and nursing students with courses in “Religion in Medicine” or “Religion in Nursing.” After four years, the student body expanded to 724 pastors and medical, nursing, and ministerial students from across the United States. Students could earn graduate degrees through affiliations with the five theological seminaries of Texas. In 1966 the institute was designated as the official Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training center for the chaplains of the United States Air Force. However, after ten years, hospitals began to adopt and offer their own chaplain training programs, and that phase of the institute officially ended with the retirement of  Bryan in 1968.

The institute appointed Reverend Thompson L. Shannon as its new president and director in 1968 and was renamed the Institute of Religion and Human Development. Its new focus shifted towards medical ethics, and in March 1968 the institute co-sponsored with Rice University the Ethics in Medicine and Technology Conference—one of the first major conferences on medical ethics. Theologians from around the world congregated in Houston to give talks. In 1992 new institute president Bob Nelson started the Nursing Conference with support from the McGovern Foundation in collaboration with the nursing departments of major TMC hospitals to explore the connections among the nursing profession, spirituality, health, and healing. Concurrently, Loise Wessendorff, a member of the institute’s board of trustees, advocated the establishment of the Psychotherapy and Faith Conference as a place for mental health professionals and leaders of the faith community to examine the role faith plays in the workplace and discuss shared topics of concern. In the 2020s both conferences were still held annually and attracted more than 100 attendees. After the death of Rabbi Hyman Judah Schachtel in 1990, the institute established the Rabbi Hyman J. Schachtel Memorial Symposium in honor of the Houston rabbi, educator, and institute board member. The symposium brought in Jewish philosophers and theologians.

The institute opened many new centers for specific populations, starting with the Children’s Center in 1977. This ministry was developed for pastoral care ministers to gain additional guidance on working with children. In 1982 a formal joint agreement was made with Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University to create the Center for Medical Ethics, which was heralded as the first independent center for biomedical ethics. The institute also met the needs of the Houston community through the formation of the Interreligious Faith and Healing Alliance, which strived to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. Karen Hahn led the efforts of the alliance, which,  after receiving grant funding in 2005, separated from the institute to become the independently operating Center for Faith and Health Initiatives.

In 2003 the institute was renamed the Institute of Religion and Health and moved to a new location on Greenbriar Drive. As reflected in the name change, the focus shifted towards the combining of religion and health in the TMC and greater Houston area. In 2006 the institute appointed its first Buddhist president, James D. Duffy, who also worked part-time as a physician at Methodist Hospital as part of his contract. Duffy renamed the institute to its current name, the Institute for Spirituality and Health, in 2008.

John K. Graham was named the new president in 2010. The institute collaborated with hospitals and institutions in the surrounding areas to further its mission to “enhance well-being by exploring the relationship between spirituality and health.” In 2012 the University of Chicago founded the National Conference on Medicine and Religion, and ISH has become the principal administrator of the conference in collaboration with Duke University.

In the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, ISH started many programs to meet the needs of the community. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., trained approximately 120 individuals at ISH in mind-body skills. Through those 120 people, another estimated 20,000+ people in the region who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Imelda, and the COVID-19 pandemic have been trained. ISH has expanded its services to include support groups for healthcare providers, teachers, veterans, teenagers, and the bereaved. The Greater Houston Healing Collaborative was also formed with six other local organizations to provide relief and support building programs for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

The core of ISH’s programming remains lecture series, conferences, and workshops. In 2019 ISH established a formal partnership with Saybrook University and acts as a satellite campus for their mind-body medicine graduate programs. The institute received funding from the Agee Family Foundation and the Fondren Foundation to initiate the Interfaith Spiritual Care Coalition in recognition of the importance of spiritual care in medical facilities and the shift from sick care to a preventative mindset. ISH plans to provide chaplaincy training for laymen and women so that they can tend to the spiritual needs of patients in settings where regular chaplaincy services are not available, such as small hospitals, hospices, nursing care facilities, and the homes of people near the end of life. According to John Graham, the future of the institute remains “an opportunity to fulfill [its] mission to increase knowledge of and sensitivity to the role that spirituality plays in health and in healing.”

Greater Houston Healing Collaborative (, accessed June 24, 2022. Institute for Spirituality and Health (, accessed June 24, 2022. Cathey Graham Nickell, Uniting Faith, Medicine and Healthcare: A 60-Year History of the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center (Houston: Institute for Spirituality and Health, 2015).

  • Education
  • Educators
  • Medical
  • Health and Medicine
  • Alternative Medicine
  • Organizations
  • Institutions
  • Religion
  • Nondenominational and Interdenominational
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Allison Wang, “Institute for Spirituality and Health,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022,

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June 29, 2022
June 29, 2022

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