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Chaplaincy Special Issue: Research Articles

The Changing Landscape of Spiritual Care: Implications for the Theological Education of Chaplains



Amidst forecasts about the future of theological education, the authors suggest that a spiritual care revolution is taking place, one that centers chaplains as the religious leaders of the future. This introduction situates the work of chaplains in the current moment and urges pastoral theologians to increase their ongoing investments in spiritual care education that is nimble and responsive to these changes. The authors organize insights around three basic questions that can serve as prompts for vital discussions about how to educate chaplains more effectively to meet current demands: What are we educating for? What are we educating chaplains to do? Where is the need? This issue features the research conducted from various collaborations around chaplaincy education and highlights the value of creating feedback loops between working chaplains, educators, and chaplaincy researchers.



Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben steps to the podium to offer the morning prayer in her newly appointed role as chaplain of the House of Representatives. This formal prayer follows those offered to members of Congress and staffers sheltered behind barriers, pacing rooms, and walking corridors escorted by Capitol police on January 6, 2021, the Capital insurrection. The former Navy Chief of Chaplains, Kibben invokes the holy in a space recently infiltrated by hate. On that same day, Abdul-Malik Merchant is doing his rounds in Middleton Corrections Center in Massachusetts and Alice Cabotaje, Buddhist clinical educator, welcomes another cohort of Clinical Pastoral Education residents at Mass General Hospital in Boston. Sara Paasche-Orlow, rabbi and chaplain, anticipates the dissemination of the COVID-vaccine, as she cares for vulnerable elder residents at Hebrew Senior Life in Boston. In the week prior, Chaplain (Colonel) Paul Minor sends his monthly email to Massachusetts Army Chaplains about Army ethics, and Asha Shipman prepares for another COVID-impacted semester as Director of Hindu Life at Yale University.

Chaplaincy is not new. However, it is experiencing something of a moment, with increased visibility amidst the shifting demographics of American religious life and in the wake of multiple pandemics. It is also taking different forms. As faith leaders responded to policies that reinforced racial inequities and created human lines of protest against the killing of unarmed Black people, movement chaplaincy came into being. ‘We didn’t have a name for it,’ says Mickey ScottBey Jones of Faith Matters Network.1 She and the organization’s founder, Rev. Jen Bailey, imagine embedded ministers caring for protesters at rallies, arguing for fair wages and public recognition. Similarly, environmental ‘eco-chaplains’ form coalitions of support and care, inspired by the powerful witness at Standing Rock and other sacred sites threatened by the fossil fuel industry. News headlines feature healthcare chaplains during COVID-19, standing in full PPE to make connections between family members unable to be together. Community chaplains, such as Lindsay Popperson, move from front-line nursing home care to preparing Zoom recordings for her UCC congregation. Such chaplains attend to the porous boundaries of spiritual care work, providing what Trace Haythorn calls ‘existential interventions.’2

While their work is often invisible, done in what Wendy Cadge calls the ‘in-between’ places, there is a palpable sense that the work of chaplaincy is not only timely but is re-purposing religious leadership amidst the changing demographics of American religion.3 These shifts in chaplaincy are important to track, because they raise questions about whether theological institutions are effectively equipping future chaplains for ministry within various settings. Such shifts impact pastoral theologians, who are prominent educators of chaplains assigned to teach pastoral and spiritual care at their institutions. Various initiatives, networks, and research projects circling around chaplaincy are raising challenges and opportunities for rethinking chaplaincy preparation.

This introduction provides a brief overview of the growth of chaplaincy, considers the implications for theological education, and names some challenges and opportunities for innovation. It pays specific attention to racial diversity and underrepresented populations giving and receiving spiritual care. It features short essays from authors invested in the training and education of chaplains. The issue highlights important conversations taking place in-person and via Zoom through the ‘Educating Effective Chaplains’ grant, funded through the Luce Foundation. The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, started in 2018, continues to support these conversations, by providing a public face and expanding audiences of chaplains.4

We are reaching out to JPT readers in hopes that it will inspire continued—an even greater—investment in chaplaincy. If ever there is a moment to invest, it is now. As you read, we invite you to consider the implications for your institutions and for the guild of pastoral theology.5 What is the work of chaplains in this current moment? And how might we, as educators, prepare them for this work?

Early Conversations – Leading to a ‘Bigger Endeavor’6

It is May 2017. We sit across from each other at Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, MA. Over breakfast, we begin to talk about educating chaplains. Institutionally, we are across the river from one other. Designing a new track in chaplaincy at Boston University School of Theology, I, a rookie, look to Cheryl for advice about what I needed to consider in the design process. Looking from my side of the river, I recognize what Cheryl’s school offers and its strengths—a strong Ministry Studies program with national and international field education placements and a staff of denominational counselors that represent the major Christian religious traditions as well as Unitarian Universalist, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.

We share observations about the students entering our classrooms. We note the increasing interest in pursuing a vocation in something like chaplaincy. I share my lightbulb moment of connecting my work in trauma studies to the field of chaplaincy. Military chaplains, almost a decade into America’s longest wars, were entering my classroom between tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military provided them a year of advanced theological education, often to prepare them for leadership and teaching roles at the branch-specific chaplaincy training schools. I did not think about chaplains up to that point, and I knew even less about military chaplains. But the encounters with several chaplains during those years changed me. I became very curious about the training and education that they were receiving in other places, which led me to a visit to the chaplaincy schools in Fort Jackson. Chaplains were coming to BU School of Theology, but they were also receiving sector-specific training in Fort Jackson. Partners in military chaplaincy education, it surprised me that I knew so little about this component of their education. At the time, I registered the lack of communication between schools but did not have a way of making connections to military chaplaincy educators.

We talk about our networks. Cheryl’s network of Buddhist Ministry Group includes fifteen members from educational institutions across the country, including Canada, that offer training in Buddhist Chaplaincy. I share collaborative work with Pathways to Military Chaplaincy, an initiative to which pastoral theologian, Larry Graham, devoted time and attention. Faculty at various theological schools with a focus on military chaplains gathered to discuss how to better prepare military chaplains at schools with mixed histories in doing so.7 This dovetailed with the creation of the Soul Repair Center and the groundbreaking theological work on moral injury.8

As we talk with other educators deeply invested in chaplaincy education, we know that they often carry out their work without a matching investment from their institutions. The history of training religious professionals gives primary attention to training religious professions for work within religious institutions. Chaplaincy has often been of secondary concern. Theological school administrators are not disinterested in chaplaincy. In fact, many of them are very interested. But a vocational hierarchy persists, with degree programs retaining the structure of the ‘ministerial’ Master of Divinity, still considered to be the gold standard for theological education.9 When considering how chaplaincy is structured within these programs, there are common patterns worth noting.10 And yet such programs are often supported by one person, with little financial investment.

We also do a lot of explaining about chaplains—who they are and what they do. We spend time countering common misperceptions about chaplains. For example, when I approached the development officer at BU central administration to ask for help in pursuing grants to support chaplaincy collaborations, I felt his disinterest. In the course of our conversation, he began to perk up. He admitted to me that the term ‘chaplain’ signals for him something rather dated, jogging his memory about an uncle who became a priest and offered last rites to parishioners in the hospital. I had to undo his misperceptions in order to capture his imagination about the future landscape of spiritual care. This is common when explaining the work of chaplains to those outside theological circles. There is a need to educate the public about who chaplains are and what they do.11 The term ‘chaplain’ can mean many things. It can grant persons access—ministerial authority—that may not be granted within their traditions; but it can also be prohibitive and exclusive.12 The case statement from Chaplaincy Innovation Lab states that there is ‘no consistent meaning.’ Instead, the term may signal something as straightforward as: ‘religious professionals who work as such outside of religious institutions.’13

But misperceptions also exist within theological institutions; outdated views of chaplaincy are evident there and even within CPE programs. To meet the current landscape of spiritual care, educators need to rethink pedagogy, core degree program components, as well as broadening the literatures and models used in education.

We continue to discuss our role as chaplaincy educators and the need to bring theological education into alignment with shifts taking place in religious engagement in the United States that directly impact chaplaincy. We are mindful of the broad changes in theological education. We also know that there are deep disparities in who receives care and problems with the pipeline of educating diverse chaplains who will provide that care. And yet we are profoundly hopeful about the future when we witness it from the perspective of our classrooms. Our students, future spiritual caregivers, embody the changes reflected in the data and anticipate the expanding forms of chaplaincy.14

The breakfast conversation was just the beginning. Through a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, ‘Educating Effective Chaplains,’ we joined with other educators and chaplaincy stakeholders to explore the theological education of chaplains. Over 40 participants gathered in Boston in July 2019 to discuss the future education of chaplains, both within theological schools and CPE sites. Several authors in this issue participated in these ‘Luce gatherings’ and other projects associated with it. We intend for this issue to reflect the spirit and urgency of these generative collaborations. Instead of offering conclusions, we invite readers to glimpse what those in the field are doing and thinking.

What We Know: Shifts & Old Models Won’t Cut it

Let us begin with the big picture. If we are paying attention to major shifts happening in American religious life, a turn to chaplaincy makes sense. Recent works by social scientists studying religion in the United States cast chaplaincy in new light, as they consider the ways in which these ‘secular priests’ remain nimble and function in ways that reflect the structures of religion in American society.15 They identify chaplaincy as an important area of study amidst these shifts.16 An underlying thread in this research is that chaplaincy is not only worth paying attention to; the implication is that it will be the dominant form of religious leadership in the future. Wendy Cadge’s work, the most prominent scholar working across the many sectors where chaplains serve, blends analysis with an on-the-ground concern about care delivery. In Paging God, the closing pages offer a clarion call for chaplaincy educators to come together for a conversation. She also anticipates challenges: ‘While chaplaincy leaders and educators in each of these areas could work together to imagine new, more interdisciplinary, and more integrated training models, change is not likely to be easy.’17

Major studies, such as The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study (2014), point to increasing numbers of Americans who do not affiliate with religious organizations. This indicates a ‘de-institutionalization of American religious life,’ according to Cadge, but it does not mean a decrease in spirituality.18 More recently, The Fetzer Institute Report (2020), ‘What Does Spirituality Mean to Us?,’ support the high interest in spirituality.19 86% of survey participants identify as spiritual to some extent; 7 out of 10 ‘said that spirituality is important in their lives.’ When asked whether they aspire to be more spiritual, 3 out of 5 respondents said ‘Yes.’ Even with declining affiliation with religion, spirituality is strong. And yet the sources of spirituality named by participants in the study are wide-ranging. Elizabeth Drescher, in Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Life of America’s Religious Nones, identifies four primary spiritual sources for those who do not affiliate with a religious tradition via these four categories: ‘Family – Friends – Food – Fido.’20 If we consider chaplaincy work as responsive to spiritual needs at the ‘institutional edges,’ these studies tell us a lot about how, and where, Americans will be seeking care. The Fetzer study also debunks the notion that spirituality is opposed to religion; in many cases, participants continue to strongly identify with more traditional components of religion.21 Instead of a narrative of decline, we can think about shifting locations and expanding visions of spiritual sourcing.

There is continuous, and even growing, need for spiritual care; and yet the delivery-systems for such care are changing. And changing more rapidly than the models of chaplaincy education. We know, through Henry Luce Foundation supported projects, that over one-quarter of ATS-accredited theological institutions have a degree or certificate program in chaplaincy.22 Although theological school enrollment has been down since 2000, chaplaincy is an area of growth. In an examination of 21 theological schools offering degree programs in chaplaincy, researchers found that the programs varied significantly in terms of credit hours, course requirements, etc. Many of the degree programs have been created recently and there is an uptick in the number of completed CPE units. This same study included interviews with key theological educators reflecting on the development of their programs and its core components. The data ‘suggest(s) a lack of consensus about what chaplains need to know.’23

There is opportunity for innovation, but it will require more than tweaking existing programs. There are underlying assumptions about chaplaincy that need to be addressed. Notes from the 2019 ‘Luce gathering’ contain various versions of this statement: ‘Christian normativity persists.’ While diversity is a stated aim in many of these programs, traces of Christian normativity are evident. Conversations in the Luce group named the need for the decolonization of spiritual care education, the problem of the pipeline, the obstacles for minority religious groups.

The weight and force of historical models are palpable within this diverse group. While there are visible signs of diversification, the conversations reflect the underlining assumptions of chaplaincy origins, as strongly Protestant and imagined in close proximity to Christian ministry. The history of Clinical Pastoral Education is similar. Rev. Robert Leas and John R. Thomas, write: ‘In the beginning, and for at least 50 years, the Certified Supervisors were all male, mostly Protestant Christian, and almost all white.’24

The dominant mode for educating chaplains is still a Christian clergy model. Buddhist and Muslim chaplains and chaplaincy educators are overwhelmingly trained within Protestant theological schools. At many of these schools, core requirements emphasize competence in Christian scriptures, for example. Non-Christian chaplains continuously translate into the language and practices of their traditions. More recently, as several articles in this issue name, models of Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim spiritual care are receiving significant attention. This issue features several leading voices in Muslim chaplaincy. The authors indicate the ongoing needs for the training of Muslim chaplains, the politics of hiring, and pipelines for employment. Feryal Salem directly addresses the Protestant model of seminary education and the need for Muslim chaplains to be trained to support the Muslim faith community. Celene Ibrahim highlights the innovations by Muslim women chaplains leading initiatives to provide mentoring and spiritual guidance for Muslims navigating everyday questions of faithful living. Through a case study, Abdul-Malik Merchant shows the significance of drawing from Islamic resources in a spiritual care moment. Likewise, Bilal Ansari makes the case for spiritual care that is relevant to the Muslim community and challenge normative assumptions undergirding models of pastoral care and pastoral theology.

Existing models of education also default to healthcare or the military. While the military has a longer history, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) emerged in healthcare organizations in the 1920s as Protestant theological educators tried to change theological education. Convinced that students needed to get out of the classroom, they created internship type learning experiences in healthcare organizations that over time became what is today known as CPE. CPE created the opportunity – also over time – for people to become trained chaplains which created a new set of individuals to do this work. Many CPE sites remain in hospitals even as people seek to do the work of chaplaincy in a broader range of settings.25 When discussing what makes for effective chaplaincy, metrics for assessing effectiveness from healthcare and the military may not translate to other sectors. For example, the language of spiritual assessment does not register with chaplains who work with unhoused populations. And yet if healthcare discourse becomes the dominant language to talk about the work that chaplains do, there is potential to create hierarchies among sectors. Storm Swain, reflecting on her work as a chaplain with the Disaster Mortuary Team in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, makes the case for a ‘disaster-informed approach’ to chaplaincy education.

The Christian clergy model can no longer be the default for chaplaincy education. Naming this does not disparage the history of chaplaincy. Neither does attention to the rise of chaplaincy as a dominant form of religious leadership in the future suggest that chaplains are going to replace ministers. It simply makes clear that it will be important to develop chaplaincy-specific models that reflect some of the unique dimensions of chaplaincy ministry. It puts pressure on theological institutions and educators to take a fresh look at how we are training chaplains. Judi Schwanz rethinks the mission of her denominationally identified seminary amidst the changing landscape of chaplaincy. She asks: ‘How can an institution such as ours best prepare students for chaplaincy ministry to very diverse populations?’

Three Big Questions

Given what we know about these shifts underfoot, we name three big questions that we explored together. What don’t we know?26 The purpose of forming collaborative networks of stakeholders in chaplaincy education is to revisit basic questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and who it serves.

Who Are We Educating Chaplains for? – Demand

As new chaplaincy degree programs are emerging, there is a lot of energy and creativity around program design, considering new courses, and adjusting field education, to name a few areas of innovation. But the discussions remain largely in-house and do not offer sufficient feedback loops that tell us, as a theological educators, whether our curricular changes are actually responding to the need on the ground. Cadge extends the invitation to change the direction from what she identifies as a supply side focus to a demand-side one.27 We know little about how care receivers experience chaplains and also little about what employers look for when hiring chaplains.

Our 2019 Luce gathering featured a panel of employers providing important information about they, as chaplaincy employers, look for in a chaplain. Another panel featured recent graduates of our programs reporting back about how our degree programs prepared them for their current work settings. Hearing from the demand side, it was evident that there are weak feedback loops–between chaplaincy workplaces and theological schools, professional organizations, CPE sites, and religious endorsers. As a chaplaincy educator, I thought little about the specific chaplaincy workplaces into which my students were entering when I was teaching my courses. I, like many, was training the ‘ministerial generalist.’ We now see the value of creating feedback loops between our degree programs and chaplaincy workplaces.

This raises ethical questions of whether theological schools are preparing future chaplains with attention to employment. Is there a job market for chaplains? How do we know? Data about where chaplains are getting jobs is uneven. And yet input from these chaplaincy employers is rare. This is not the case for clergy education. Theological schools often have a better sense of what denominations and religious bodies are looking for when they hire ministers. Religious employers make sense to religious schools, because they share common language and missional mindsets. However, there is less access to non-religious employers who hire chaplains to be certain kinds of ‘religious’ professionals within their organizations.

In the case of higher education chaplaincy, we conducted focus groups that revealed the frustration of chaplains doing significant work that went unrecognized by their employers.28 They were feeling the pressure of providing increased metrics to provide their value, but the measures were not in line with their training and preparation.29 The degree programs were measuring competency in areas that did not translate to the organizations in which they worked. Higher-education administrators and student affairs professionals are concerned about student wellness and links to academic performance. As advocates for spiritual health, religious and spiritual life professionals need to make the case that they are partners in supporting student wellness. But this, again, requires updating views of chaplaincy and pursuing interdisciplinary models of care.30 In her role as higher-education chaplain, K. Monet Rice-Jalloh considers generationally-appropriate modes of care delivery and urges theological institutions to prepare digital competent graduates.

Another part of demand is care recipients. Again, if we think about college and university students as recipients of spiritual care, religious and spiritual life professionals may feel the impact of their work vis-à-vis individual encounters or by the success of programs (number of students who attend a particular program), but we know little from students about the impact of chaplains on their well-being.31 A pilot study in higher education asks students at one college if—and how—they are engaging spiritual and religious life on campus.32 The findings show that students are and that their engagement with chaplains improves their overall experience of wellbeing and success on campus. Tiffany Steinwert, co-researcher on the pilot project, challenges college and university chaplains to embrace their roles, as distinct from, but in partnership with, mental health professionals on campus. From this study, we know that students are not simply asking mental health questions; they are asking burning questions about life’s meaning and purpose. Are chaplaincy graduates from theological schools prepared to work with students to provide them ‘with essential skills to excavate existential meaning and purpose over a lifetime?’ These are the kinds of questions that arise when thinking from a demand-side perspective.

What Are We Educating Chaplains to Do? – Competencies

Looking across theological schools offering programs in chaplaincy, there is little consensus about what chaplains need to know. Degree program requirements and didactics vary widely.33 Theological schools work with ATS-accreditation outcomes. The Board of Chaplaincy Certification has a list of competencies needed to become a board-certified chaplain. Ordaining and endorsing bodies also list competencies. This means that chaplains are often working with multiple sets of competencies—from masters’ degree programs, clinical/certification programs, and religious endorsers. Sectors, such as prisons, military, and healthcare often have emphases and systems that determine advancement. But these sectors were not interacting with each other.

In the July 2019 meeting, we pose the question: ‘What, if anything, do you think chaplains need to know regardless of the sectors in which they work?’ Participant responses range from practical skills, to attitudes, and modes of being: research literacy, cultural humility, boundaries, how to make referrals, how to cultivate intimacy in short and long term encounters, ‘unconditional positive regard,’ how to access and use religious resources, comfort with discomfort, awareness of political framing of religion, and comfort with discomfort.34 Knowing that sectors are rarely in conversation with each other, we considered whether skills and competencies are transferrable from one sector to another, i.e. How easily can chaplains move between sectors?

Without setting out a new list of competencies, we began to experiment with naming broad competency areas that capture the dimensions of chaplaincy work across sectors. In our conversations together, we note the problems with referring to all chaplains and are wary of universalizing statements. We are also mindful of the need to create on-ramps for conversations between educators that move us out of our educational silos. Could we address competencies without compromising attention to participate contexts?

Luce participants collaborated on an edited volume, which speaks to three competencies. Chaplains facilitate processes of meaning-making; attune themselves to the range of human experiences by developing an interpersonal toolkit; and navigate complex organizations.

Chaplains are adept at making meaning. Their work is existential and engages questions of meaning and purpose. This is what distinguishes chaplains most from other care professionals. They engage beliefs accompanied by embodied practices. They also are comfortable with the limits of human knowledge. Many have rich traditions for engaging the unknown, some referring to it under the language of mystery and others by reflecting on the unknowability of God’s nature and workings in the world.

Chaplains also need a set of interpersonal competencies in the work that they do. The way that chaplains are present with people in moments of crisis, trauma, or even more ordinary transitions or processes of decision making has often been conveyed with the term—a ‘ministry of presence.’ Skills in reflective listening, effective use of self, and establishing boundaries are associated with chaplains. Much of this is informed by psychology and theories of human development.

Chaplains also navigate complex organizations. Knowing their role within it and also where others are situated within the organization is important. They build relationships within those organizations but without the assumed authority that they might have if operating within religiously oriented spaces. Because they are not primarily trained within the discourse or expertise areas of the organization, they are always translating within the institution. This makes it possible for them to hear and see things that the ‘home’ participants may not see. This allows them to be advocates for care. William Payne explores recent legal challenges to providing equitable spiritual care for inmates and shares his advocacy work. Chaplains, he says, are ‘brokers of religious freedom’ in corrections workplaces, revealing the specific tensions at work for federal government chaplains.

If we bring these three broad competency areas to the theological schools, then the scope widens in terms of what faculty members, courses, and co-curricular opportunities can prepare future chaplains to be effective. Notice that the pastoral theologian/spiritual care educator remains a vital person in chaplaincy preparation. But not the only one. If we take these competency areas as guides for degree programs, then we might start to look around theological schools differently. We will look for various interdisciplinary partners. The range of educators broadens, but, as previously mentioned, this will involve efforts to change perceptions about chaplaincy within our schools.

One of the challenges voiced in our Luce discussions was that chaplaincy degree programs operate with one, perhaps two, faculty members supporting them. Past models may have relied on these dedicated people—figureheads for chaplaincy programs. But often that one leader carried out the work without deeper investment from the school. We are aware that with budget cuts and the slimming of personnel of these schools, they will not be replaced. Chaplaincy education continues to be outsourced and supported by adjunct instructors who are not voting faculty members. These instructors often bring invaluable contextual knowledge and do important bridging work for the degree programs but have little to no institutional influence.

Efforts to invest in chaplaincy may also be pitted against efforts to support—and revive—congregational ministry, as institutions are increasingly working under conditions of economic scarcity. In a competitive mindset of decline, if one grows, the other diminishes. In fact, we know that the lines are blurred between congregational ministry and chaplaincy.35

Where Is the Need? – Representation

Our conversations exposed the historical weight of existing models of chaplaincy education and how they carry with them assumptions and positions of privilege. The Luce conversations featured moments of tension around universalizing statements about who chaplains are and what they do. Talk about a common curriculum and standardization raise concerns tied to the historical dominance of Eurocentric and Christocentric visions. Collaborations, even ours that had diverse representation, can easily default to familiar disciplinary patterns of thinking and planning.

While energized by the increasing visibility of chaplaincy, the gaps and invisibility of populations delivering and receiving care brought to the surface issues of race and representation within the field. During the course of our conversations, we became more attentive to the demographics of spiritual care. There is a lack of chaplains from diverse and underrepresented groups. There is uneven distribution of care, which means that communities of color receive less attention and have fewer resources. Who are chaplains serving and not-serving? Joshua Morris registers the urgency of these questions and makes the case for ‘intersectional analysis’ in healthcare chaplaincy. Attesting to moral injury in this context, he calls for a ‘systemic imagination’ in response to the existential threat to BiPOC communities.

As conversations continued, the overwhelming whiteness of chaplaincy was named in a different way. Naming whiteness as what undergirds chaplaincy—our processes of education and training—is deeper work. Certainly, the need to diversify the field is important. But there must also be active attention to—and ongoing practices of—questioning the foundations upon which modern spiritual care within the United States was built. The Christian clergy model was also conceived and conducted by white educators. But it continues to operate under the conditions of whiteness. Theologian Willie Jennings diagnoses the problem of whiteness operative in theological education.36

As we entered into more challenging conversations, several members of the group developed a set of questions to guide our writing related to chaplaincy education. They created a rubric to foster accountability in our individual and collaborative writing. These ask writers to reflect on four sets of questions:

  • Do we acknowledge and/or address barriers to chaplaincy and spiritual care? (in chaplaincy education and preparation/in the workforce/in the delivery of care)

  • Have we considered how the context/practice that we discuss/analyze might shift or be experienced differently by/in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) spaces?

  • Have we attempted to consult authors of different racial/ethnic backgrounds or different religious persuasions/identities? If such demographically diverse voices are not readily available on your topic, have you considered possible reasons for their absence? What does this absence necessitate in terms of further research/writing/teaching?

  • ‘How does this piece/case study promote, center, and support the integration of questions of race, ethnicity, other aspects of social identity, political/social climate, and inequality into the life of spiritual care/institutions in which one functions.’ [This question is adapted from the Board of Chaplaincy Certification guide to essay writing: BCCI Competency Essay Writing Guide, Section IV: Organizational Leadership Competencies, OL1]37

We open this issue with Cheryl’s essay. It reflects the urgency of questions rising up from our group. It positions our conversations in the midst of the ongoing shootings of Black people. She shares the work of the Conversation Circles for chaplains of color. We close with a piece by Elam Jones, a CPE resident who courageously explores his own position as a Black chaplain moving in the predominantly white world of Clinical Pastoral Education. Maybe, he suggests, we begin with something as simple as ‘increasing representation of ‘others’ within spiritual care.’

Nuts and Bolts of the Issue

Contributors to this issue created, together, the prompt for this issue. We asked each author to respond: 38

Given what you are seeing and experiencing from your vantage point and identity as a chaplain and/or chaplaincy educator, what is the work of chaplains in this current moment? From where you are positioned, what do you see as the opportunities and challenges? What implications do these opportunities and challenges hold for the education and training of chaplains?

Cheryl and I decided to craft the introduction after we received the contributions from the other authors. We did not know how they would respond to the prompt in advance.

Four threads are evident throughout. First, it raises the question of education and training for chaplains from non-dominant faith traditions. Second, it features the ongoing tensions around representing a particular faith tradition and yet providing care in the tradition of the care recipient—whether a tradition different, and even in opposition to the beliefs of the chaplain, or to persons who do not identify as religious. In different sectors, the tensions are more visible. Third, the COVID-19 pandemic challenges the means by which care is delivered and received. Finally, the topic of underrepresentation in spiritual care and what this looks like within chaplaincy settings bookends this issue. Some of the authors offer specific directives to theological institutions and educators. Others name problems ‘in the field’ and point indirectly to the preparation of chaplains in various educational settings—whether theological institutions or Clinical Pastoral Education sites.

These short essays reflect the time of our writing. We felt the immediate pressures of the pandemic. It was impossible to ignore, because we were in it. But there was equally a sense that what we were experiencing together (adaptations in work, high stress and anxiety, despair about ongoing violence enacted on communities of color, etc.) will have lasting impact. The lens of the pandemic was front and center, but this lens underscored longstanding issues existing in the field. Chaplaincy work did not just change in and for this moment; it shook our institutions in a more profound way, revealing gaps and expanding room for different dimensions of spiritual care.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Shelly Rambo

Shelly Rambo is Associate Professor of Theology at Boston University School of Theology. Her research and teaching interests focus on religious responses to trauma and moral injury. She is author of Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Westminster John Knox, 2010), Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (Baylor University Press, 2017), and co-edited volume with Wendy Cadge, Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction (UNC Press, 2022).

Cheryl Giles

Cheryl A. Giles is the Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer on Pastoral Care and Counseling at Harvard Divinity School and a licensed clinical psychologist. She teaches courses on spiritual care, trauma, and contemplative care of the dying. Cheryl is co-editor (with Willa Miller) of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work (Wisdom Press, 2012). Her most recent book is Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom (Shambhala Publication, 2020) co-edited with Pamela Ayo Yetunde.


1 Faith Matters Network trains movement chaplains. ScottBey Jones says, “We deal with the stress and the trauma that people go through when they engage oppressive forces.”

Alejandra Molina, “In an emerging role, chaplains are providing spiritual care for activists in movements across the nation,” Religion News Service, July 23, 2020, https://religionnews.com/2020/07/23/in-emerging-role-chaplains-are-providing-spiritual-care-for-activists-in-movements-across-the-nation/.

2 Taken from the interview notes that comprise the main dataset for: Wendy Cadge, George Fitchett, Trace Haythorn, Patricia K. Palmer, Shelly Rambo, Casey Clevenger, and Irene Elizabeth Stroud, “Training Healthcare Chaplains: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 73, no. 4 (December 2019): 211–21, https://doi.org/10.1177/1542305019875819.

3 Chaplains are “primary individuals in the public sphere equipped to provide spiritual care in times of crisis in hospitals, the military, and disaster relief zones or even during the routine existential issues that arise when moving through life,” 207. Wendy Cadge, Stroud, Irene Elizabeth, Palmer, Patricia K, Fitchett, George, Haythorn, Trace, and Clevenger, Casey. "Training Chaplains and Spiritual Caregivers: The Emergence and Growth of Chaplaincy Programs in Theological Education." Pastoral Psychology 69, no. 3 (2020): 187-208, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-020-00906-5.

4 Wendy Cadge and Michael Skaggs, “Chaplaincy? Spiritual Care? Innovation?: A Case Statement,” Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, September 15, 2018, http://chaplaincyinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Cadge-Skaggs-2018.pdf, 8-9.

5 When we look inside theological institutions, we know that pastoral theologians and professors of pastoral care and counseling take the lead in educating chaplains.

6 Attributed to pastoral theologian Joretta Marshall. Cadge et al, “Training Healthcare Chaplains,” Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, 217.

7 This is an executive summary of the Pathways to Military Chaplaincy conference that Boston University School of Theology, Iliff School of Theology, and Forum on Military Chaplaincy co-hosted in 2016. http://chaplaincyinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2016-Pathways-to-the-Military-Chaplaincy-Executive-Summary.pdf

8 Soul Repair Center. https://www.brite.edu/programs/soul-repair/

9 Cadge et al, “Training Chaplains and Spiritual Caregivers,” Pastoral Psychology, 199. The authors write: “As a group, the MDiv programs with chaplaincy specializations or certificates continue to meet the accreditation requirements of the MDiv while aiming to include the education that faculty at these schools believe students need to be effective chaplains.”

10 Cadge, et al, “Training Chaplains and Spiritual Caregivers,” Pastoral Psychology, 192. The authors identify five major patterns in how chaplaincy programs have developed in theological institutions: “a military chaplaincy pattern, a pastoral counseling pattern, a minority religion pattern, a CPE pattern, and an interfaith pattern.”

11 Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, “This is What a Chaplain Looks Like.” https://chaplaincyinnovation.org/this-chaplain, Accessed on July 28, 2021.

12 Cadge writes: “Chaplain is a Christian word, the Muslim chaplain reminded me, saying that when Muslim patients are asked if they would like to see a chaplain, “the first thing that comes to mind is a priest or a reverend, and maybe they’re going to convert me.” Wendy Cadge, Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine, (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 196.

13 Wendy Cadge and Michael Skaggs, “Case Statement,” Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, September 15, 2018. http://chaplaincyinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Cadge-Skaggs-2018.pdf, 8-9.

14 The Field Guide series offered through the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab addresses the practical components that concern students heading into chaplaincy. Components of the series point to the price of becoming a chaplain, the uncertainties of the job market, and ways of navigating an increasingly “portfolio economy.”Accessed July 28, 2021. https://chaplaincyinnovation.org/resources/field-guide

15 Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

16 Wendy Cadge’s Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine, Ronit Stahl’s Enlisting Faith: How Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America, and John Schmaltzbauer and Kathleen A. Mahoney’s The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education, provide critical mappings of the profession of chaplaincy in the U.S. Chaplains reflect the “broad changes in American religious life and religious leadership,” Cadge, Paging God, 188.

17 Cadge, Paging God, 207. See chapter 9 “Looking Forward.”

18 Cadge and Skaggs, “Chaplaincy? Spiritual Care? Innovation?: A Case Statement,” 6. Cadge and Skaggs points to the rise of chaplains who “work on the institutional edges.”

19 Fetzer Institute, “Study of Spirituality in the United States,” Fetzer Institute, September 2020. Accessed July 27, 2021. https://spiritualitystudy.fetzer.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/What-Does-Spirituality-Mean-To-Us_%20A-Study-of-Spirituality-in-the-United-States.pdf

20 Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion : The Spiritual Lives of America's Nones, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016).

21 The Fetzer study showed that many people referred to religious iconography, practices, and symbols when describing their spirituality. Fetzer Report, 2020. https://spiritualitystudy.fetzer.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/What-Does-Spirituality-Mean-To-Us_%20A-Study-of-Spirituality-in-the-United-States.pdf

22 Cadge and Skaggs, “Chaplaincy? Spiritual Care? Innovation?: A Case Statement,” 10. “Of the 319 schools in the United States and Canada that offer graduate theological degrees (including Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and interreligious institutions), we identified 81 that offer at least one specialized chaplaincy program, or about a quarter of the schools (see Table 3 and Map 1)”; “Attention to chaplaincy and spiritual care in theological education is growing, particularly since 2000. In addition to offering single classes, a quarter of the theological schools we identified have degree programs that address chaplaincy, and that number seems to still be on the rise.” Cadge et al, “Training Chaplains and Spiritual Caregivers, 205.

23 “Training Chaplains and Spiritual Caregivers,” Pastoral Psychology, 200.

24 Robert Leas and John R. Thomas, “ACPE Brief History,” https://acpe.edu/docs/default-source/acpe-history/acpe-brief-history.pdf?sfvrsn=a9e02b71_2

25 Cadge, Paging God. Clinical Pastoral Education started in mental health institutions, but when these programs were closed, hospitals became the dominant locations for CPE. With an explosion of new hospitals in the 1970’s, healthcare settings became stable homes for the clinical training of theological students. It makes sense, then, that healthcare settings provide the dominant language for chaplaincy.

26 “Case Statement,” Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.

27 “Case Statement,” 3. “We ask how chaplains are trained, what the demand is for their work, how that demand has changed with growing religious diversity, and what business models enable chaplains to provide the best services to diverse groups.”

28 Focus groups were conducted in Spring 2019 at the joint meeting of NACUC/ACURA, Albuquerque, NM, and at Boston University School of Theology in May 2019.

29 We know that Transforming Chaplaincy has been pursuing this in respect to healthcare chaplaincy. Making the case for the need for chaplains to be more research competent: “A small but growing body of research about patient experience shows strong linkages between chaplaincy visits and patient satisfaction (Bay et al. 2008, Iler, Obershain and Camac 2001, Johnson et al. 2014, Marin et al. 2015, Snowden and Telfer 2017)” cited in Cadge and Skaggs, “Chaplaincy? Spiritual Care? Innovation?: A Case Statement,” 17.

30 Elena G. Van Stee, Taylor Paige Winfield, Wendy Cadge, John Schmalzbauer, Tiffany Steinwert, Shelly Rambo, and Elizabeth Clifford, “Assessing Student Engagement with Campus Chaplains: A Pilot Study from a Residential Liberal Arts College,” Journal of College and Character 23(3), forthcoming.

31 The UCLA study, “Cultivating the Spirit,” is a demand-side study that provides important information about the religiosity of university students. Astin, Alexander W. Cultivating the Spirit : How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives, 2011. See also: John Arnold Schmalzbauer and Kathleen A. Mahoney. The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education. Waco, Texas: Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2018.

32 Elena Van Stee et al., “Assessing Student Engagement with Campus Chaplains: A Pilot Study from a Residential Liberal Arts College,” Journal of College and Character, forthcoming.

33 Cadge et al, “Training Chaplains and Spiritual Caregivers,” Pastoral Psychology, 200. We focus attention on theological schools, given our positions, but we are aware that this applies to CPE didactics.

34 Notes from “Educating Effective Chaplains” gathering, Boston University School of Theology, July 2019.

35 Cyrus Schleifer and Wendy Cadge, “Clergy Working Outside of Congregations, 1976–2018,” Review of Religious Research 61, no. 4 (2019): 411-29.

36 Jennings’ work is representative of emerging works that identify a more systemic analysis of whiteness within modern theology. He writes: “Crudely put, theological education vacillates between a pedagogical imagination calibrated to forming white self-sufficient men and a related pedagogical imagination calibrated to forming a Christian racial and cultural homogeneity that yet performs the nationalist vision of that same self-sufficient man.” Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020).

37 Rambo, Shelly, “Fall Zoom ‘Educating Effective Chaplains’ Conversation,” (Celene Ibrahim, Ylisse Bess, Bilal Ansari, Cheryl Giles), Emails, 2020.

38 Rambo, Shelly, “Fall Zoom ‘Educating Effective Chaplains’ Conversation,” (Celene Ibrahim, Ylisse Bess, Bilal Ansari, Cheryl Giles), Emails, 2020.


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