What Is A Career In Chaplaincy Like?

"I have felt myself drawn to ministry but not in the traditional role as a minister of a church. What really attracts me are the various chaplain roles I have observed in institutional settings. What are the possibilities and how does one get there?"

asked by Nick L from Orange, California

You are right, there are many forms of religious chaplaincy and they need strong, committed and sharp people of faith entering their ranks.

The most familiar role may be that of hospital chaplain. Most usually hospital chaplains belong to a department of pastoral care in a hospital. They serve in a general sense, on call as needed, coordinating religious services when provided, and making routine calls, especially when clergy have been requested and a congregational pastor is not available or the patient is unaffiliated.

Though the standard credential for all faiths in hospital chaplaincy is a Master of Divinity, some lay persons, especially in the Catholic Church, serve as chaplains. This is generally the case when they are affiliated with a religious order or serving as a Deacon. Specialized training called Clinical Pastoral Education is required over and above the academic degree. This training requires in residency experience with patients while under supervision. There are levels within CPE, moving from a basic unit to supervisory levels.

Most hospitals have an office of the chaplaincy, and religious institutions especially do. Some hospitals have developed programs for chaplaincy training while others just provide chaplaincy services to patients. One should consider chaplaincy as a further step in training beyond the basic required theological degree and ordination.

Parallel to hospital chaplaincy is service within retirement centers, homes for troubled children or older adults, large church camps and mental health facilities. The requirements for training and credential vary from place to place and many accept a basic ministerial academic degree along with ordination.

Another form of chaplaincy is found in the military. The chaplains who serve in any branches of the military are a part of a long history in the United States. Because the military serves all faiths it usually provides chaplains of several types – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim. Base chapels or synagogues or mosques exist to serve the needs of the military and their families. Chaplains are deployed with troops and provide spiritual guidance, council and religious services in the field.

Most of the credentialing takes place within the individual traditions but all are enlisted and serve within the military itself. There is an upward age limit for the various branches of the military and one may not be eligible beyond that age.

Those who pursue a future in religious chaplaincy need to have the gift of compassion, be centered within themselves, and have the capacity to care but also let go of the suffering of others when away from the place of service. Since the profession is emotionally intense it is a prime locale for burnout. Careful preparation in interpersonal skills is mandatory. And spiritual depth often translates into job effectiveness, a quality difficult to quantify but essential in this very important role.

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