Chaplains Are the New Pastors. Are They Adequately Trained for the Job?

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Inspired by his Christian Science church’s tradition of supplying military chaplains, Roger Gordon hopes to minister in the army. But with few Christian Scientists in the ranks (the church has experienced a steady decline in membership in the last few decades), it’s “not even close,” he says, that most of his flock will be of different faiths than his, or have no faith.

The School of Theology student is fine with that. “Service to God, for us, includes—everyone,” Gordon says. STH’s three-year chaplaincy track did its part to prepare him, both culturally (“There’s such a diverse representation of faiths here”) and educationally. His coursework included world religions and a class with Shelly Rambo on trauma and theology “that helped me a lot.”

This academic year 13 matriculants entered the chaplaincy track, double the typical number since Rambo, an STH associate professor of theology, spearheaded its creation five years ago. That surging interest, reflected nationally—one quarter of theology schools have created chaplaincy tracks, she says—hints at what Rambo believes is the religious landscape of the future: chaplains will be the new pastors.

An aspiring army chaplain, graduate student Roger Gordon (STH) knows few soldiers will share his Christian Science faith. Photo by Cydney Scott

An aspiring army chaplain, graduate student Roger Gordon (STH) knows few soldiers will share his Christian Science faith. Photo by Cydney Scott

“Religious leadership in the United States in the future is going to look something like chaplaincy,” she predicts, with more Americans shunning organized religion and houses of worship. People will rub elbows with clergy not in church, temple, and mosque, but “in places like hospitals, disaster areas…the military, prisons. Did you know there are airport chaplains?”

Recognizing this trend, the Henry Luce Foundation has given Rambo a three-year, $500,000 grant to study, with 18 other theology institutions, the best ways to educate these future foot soldiers of God. The partner institutions range “from evangelical, fundamentalist schools to interfaith schools to Presbyterian schools,” she says.

Rambo says participants will “talk about how we train chaplains. What’s the skill set” needed to do a chaplain’s job in the various institutions that employ them. If an employer needs chaplains to do certain things, “is the skill set of chaplains and what we’re training them to do aligning with their employer demands?”

That’s trickier than it sounds, and not simply because training chaplains was an afterthought to training pastors until recently, she says. Ministering in a house of worship, clergy can count on most of their flock being of that denomination. But in a hospital, prison, or the military, chaplains will encounter people of varying religious beliefs, or no belief, requiring that they be versed in pluralism and how to find resources outside their own denomination.

Rambo is interested in the skills chaplains need for those tasks, when they’re “meeting people short-term, maybe one-stop, like in the hospital. You may see the chaplain once and never again.…They’re largely providing spiritual care. What the heck is that?”

Healthcare chaplains now are often called “spiritual care providers,” she says, reflecting wariness that the word “chaplain” is Christian in origin, when many chaplains and the people they help might not be. Whatever you call them is less important to her than what they’re doing; a chaplain who prays with you in the hospital as you’re dying, or counsels your family on dealing with the loss, needs special training to do those things.

“This might be the only religious professional some people ever see,” Rambo says.

Working with Brandeis sociologist Wendy Cadge, Rambo will create what she describes as a groundbreaking network of theology educators, chaplains, and other experts. They’ll study scholarship about chaplaincy work, review curricula at several theology schools and propose criteria for them, and share resources.

Current chaplaincy programs “are enormously varied,” Rambo and Cadge’s Luce grant proposal says. “Chaplaincy lacks a clear theological definition, and the professional field has not yet developed clear and consistent educational models. Moreover, the field has been slow to respond to demographic changes, such as the growth of religions’ ‘nones’”—people with no religious affiliation.

Increasing student interest in chaplain work, Rambo speculates, has to do with “how millennials are doing spirituality,” wanting to work for, say, NGOs rather than for institutionalized religions. “They’re very moved by religious traditions, but for purposes of social transformation.”

For all that STH has exposed Gordon to multiple faiths, he thinks even his school could up its game in training chaplains. “There aren’t a lot of counseling courses,” he says. “Most of what chaplains do is counseling. I did take a class on multicultural counseling and that was very helpful, but…that was, like, a rarity.”