What if chaplains are moving from the margins to the center of Americans’ religious experiences?
What if chaplains can lead the way to bridging our religious divides?
What if chaplains were better trained to meet spiritual needs across beliefs?
For most adults today, chaplains have been on the far-off margins of our lives. We may have been vaguely aware there was a chaplain available where we went to college or if we served in the military. But, most often, our exposures to chaplains have likely been only brief glimpses on TV shows or in movies such as “M*A*S*H.”
In fact, more than 75% of Americans have never interacted with a chaplain. As a result, our ideas about who they are and what they do are hazy at best. And they’ve probably stayed very low in our ranking of significant things to think about and talk about.
But an important shift is underway, reports Wendy Cadge, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Brandeis University and a founder of its Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. The need for chaplains is becoming critical, she says, for this reason: For the past two decades, America’s religious landscape has been rapidly changing.
More Americans than ever before now describe themselves as unaffiliated with a religion. This is especially the case for young people under the age of 30. Meanwhile, the number of self-proclaimed atheists, agnostics, humanists and “nones” continues to grow. In fact, among Millennials (born 1981-1996), a startling four-in-10 are “nones,” according to Pew Research Center data.
Although a growing number of people have no religious affiliation, we all still retain the basic human need for spiritual care, especially in face of challenges, uncertainties or crises.
This reality is putting new attention on chaplains’ role in society today. Especially since the Covid pandemic began, it has become abundantly clear that the work of a chaplain role has become less about a theology and more about openness, communication and human-to-human caring.
“Until the recent pandemic chaplains were largely overlooked in public discourse,” Cadge reports. “However, our national survey found that as many as 25% of Americans have had contact with a chaplain. As fewer people are involved with local congregations, they are increasingly connecting with chaplains in traditional settings like the military, prisons and healthcare organizations, and in new places including community organizations, social movements and a broader range of workplaces.”
This expansion of chaplains’ presence means they’re increasingly tackling the challenges of pluralism head-on and often in their work. Going beyond mere tolerance, they’re instead expected to engage collaboratively and intimately across religious and cultural differences – a mindset and a growing movement known as covenantal pluralism.
But are chaplains up to the task? Have they been adequately trained?
“The requirements of chaplains’ roles have changed faster than training programs can keep up with,” says Cadge. “Chaplains are trained in different ways to work in different sectors and are siloed in ways best neither for the profession nor for the people they serve.”
Moreover, she adds, while the people who receive their care are diverse, chaplains are still overwhelmingly white, male and Christian. Most have graduate degrees in theology or the equivalent and some clinical training. However, surprisingly, there’s no standard education, licensure or accreditation requirement. Training curricula vary greatly, and interreligious courses or learning experiences tend to be the exception versus the rule.
Under Cadge’s leadership and with funding from Templeton Religion Trust, the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab is engaged in a major, first-of-its-kind research effort. Working with an advisory committee of 28 stakeholders including theological and clinical educators and social scientists, the team is collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data about where chaplains are placed, what their work entails, the skills they need to do it well and how they’re currently being trained.
The overall aim is to empirically identify where the supply of chaplains meets demands and where there are gaps, a first step toward igniting transformative change.
In particular, the research team has pinpointed three key areas where more training is desperately needed:
“We are convinced that educators cannot train chaplains well without information about where and how the work of chaplains is in demand, how they are enacting covenantal pluralism in those settings and what training best facilitates their key roles,” Cadge says. “In some settings, this is demand for an actual chaplain. In other settings, the demand is for the skills of presence. These include empathetic listening, improvisation, awareness of spiritual, religious and broad existential issues of meaning and purpose, and the knowledge and ability to comfort around death.
“In an age when formal religious identification is on the decline, it is tempting to suggest that the ‘benefits of religion’ have run their course and now are receding,” she continues. “We contend otherwise. Chaplains are revitalizing religion in the current moment, and that requires developing specialized training programs to prepare them.”