Continuing the Dialogue on Chaplaincy Education 

The following is a guest blog post by Michael Skaggs, Director of Programs at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University.

With support from the Henry Luce Foundation, leadership from the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University partnered with Professor Shelly Rambo of Boston University School of Theology and Trace Haythorn of ACPE: The Standard for Spiritual Care and Education on a project to enhance how chaplains are trained in the United States. Among many other things, one of the project’s results is the textbook Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century, out now from the University of North Carolina Press.

My colleague Grace Tien wrote at The Aspen Institute that “the future of religious care will be dominated by chaplains.” Taylor Paige Winfield speaks to this dynamic in her chapter “Chaplaincy Work and Preparation across Sectors.” It’s not only researchers who are taking note of these trends: the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab’s free educational series, Field Guide for Aspiring Chaplains, has seen interest from an enormous number of students and prospective chaplains from all over the United States and is sponsored by the some of the leading educational institutions in the field today. 

It’s important to note that what chaplains do is often misconstrued. Often those outside the field, or those who have not encountered a chaplain recently, will associate chaplaincy with someone like Fr. Mulcahy of MASH, or otherwise a religious leader who prays with individuals or provides religious services or sacraments. The reality today is far different. While professional chaplains will indeed provide those services if asked, more often they exercise what Winnifred Sullivan called a “ministry of presence,” in hospitals, prisons, the military, colleges and universities, and more. More directly, chaplains are involved in addressing some of the most pressing social and cultural issues of our day, including social justice advocacyinterpreting individual religious freedom within the common good, and the role of law enforcement in communities. Speaking to Francine Orr of the LA Times, Chaplain Kevin Deegan of Providence Health care said of his hospital service during the COVID-19 pandemic “I had to be in person. I had to be with them. Donning and doffing PPE just like them. Witnessing patients in their worst of times. I had to be present. There is no other place for me but to be here. If I wasn’t going to be here, I wasn’t a chaplain because a chaplain is present.”

Why write a textbook? After all, educational institutions like theological schools, seminaries, and divinity schools have enjoyed success for quite some time producing religious and spiritual leaders. We wanted to go beyond that success – to capitalize on the impulse that individuals and institutions have to serve others as effectively as possible, and with one eye firmly on the spiritual needs not only of people today but tomorrow. Recent research indicates that “most theological schools offering degree programs in chaplaincy today have developed independently of one another, have little consensus around the curricular structure of their programs, and have limited conversations among themselves that could begin standardizing chaplaincy training. Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century is one starting point to begin that shared conversation.

Crucially, the book is not an attempt to codify chaplaincy training according to any one institution’s paradigm or outlook. Instead, the chapters speak to competencies that can be taught across the board, in any institution, by any educator committed to responsible spiritual care. For example, Rochelle Robins and Danielle Tummino Hansen contributed a chapter on meaning making through ritual and public leadership; Carrie Doehring and Allison Kestenbaum wrote on cultivating genuine spiritual trust, especially in circumstances susceptible to suspicion of ulterior motives. 

While Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century is intended primarily for an audience of educators in the classroom or in clinical pastoral education (CPE), the book is also fruitful for anyone seeking meaningful engagement in the organizations they serve. The whole of Part 4 treats what we call organizational competencies, with chapters on chaplains fostering organizational well-being (Nathan White), organizational leadership (Su Yon Pak), and the strong emotional undercurrents running through every organization (Laurie Garrett-Cobbina). 

We are grateful for the opportunity to help bring together spiritual care educators in thinking about the future of this vital profession, and we are eager to continue the dialogue about chaplaincy education.

Michael Skaggs is the Director of Programs at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab and a visiting scholar at Brandeis University.