Spiritual Care in Changing Times

What impact does theological education have in times of distress?

Posted Dec 18, 2017

© Randall Armor
Source: © Randall Armor

Co-authored by Beth Stroud

From wildfires in California to hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico to shootings in Las Vegas, disasters hit the United States hard in 2017.

First responders, racing toward rather than away from trouble, have been busy helping the wounded, the displaced, the grieving, and the traumatized. Alongside the National Guard, the Red Cross, and a range of local, state, and federal officials, a significant group of quiet helpers have been attending to the spiritual needs of people whose worlds have been turned upside down.

Chaplains and spiritual caregivers sit with people in distress, support the grieving, care for the dead, and coordinate local religious leaders – all in the face of the kind of suffering that leaves most of us at a loss for words. Where and how do they learn how to help?

With support from the Henry Luce Foundation, we started investigating this question this fall. In the world of organized American religion, professionally trained chaplains have long been treated as specialized religious professionals with an anomalous vocation. They study for the same graduate degrees as pastors, priests, rabbis, and cantors who lead congregations. If ordained, they have gone through the same ordination process as other clergy members. However, their work in hospitals, prisons, the military, and disaster zones has often been seen as secondary because they do not work in congregations, which many consider the heart of American religious life.

As American religion continues to change – today only half of U.S. adults attend religious services once a month or more – we wonder how chaplains and their work are changing, and if their professional education is meeting their needs. Growing numbers of people, especially under the age of 30, are not affiliated with a religious tradition. By 2050, the Pew Research Center predicts, more than a quarter of the U.S. population will not be affiliated with any formal religious group.

The need for chaplains and their services might decrease as a result of these changes or it could increase. Just because people do not attend religious services does not mean they are without existential questions or spiritual needs, especially when disaster strikes. It does mean, however, that in times of spiritual crisis, they are unlikely to have an established relationship with a member of the clergy to whom they can turn for help. Whether there actually are atheists in foxholes is an open question, but whether people are atheists, unaffiliated, or devout adherents of a religious tradition, chaplains are the theologically educated professionals in the foxholes with them – on military operations, in hospital emergency rooms, in prisons, or in the midst of natural or man-made disasters.

Theological schools are responding to these changing religious demographics. While total enrollment has been declining steadily since the early 2000s in Christian graduate theological schools in the U.S. and Canada that are accredited through the Association of Theological Schools (a subset of theological schools for which historical data are readily available), we find chaplaincy programs proliferating.

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. These programs range from professional master’s degrees in chaplaincy or pastoral care, to Master of Divinity or equivalent degrees with a concentration in chaplaincy, to doctoral degrees, as well as non-credit courses for part-time and volunteer chaplains. Most of these programs are relatively new: the oldest such program, based on what we know to date, was established in 1998.

Before these programs began, specialized education for chaplaincy was an add-on to a theological degree, centered on clinical training programs in hospitals or other settings of acute suffering. These programs, known as Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE, were originally designed for congregational leaders, and many theological students enroll in a unit of CPE during seminary. Professional chaplains, however, often take four or more units of CPE, frequently completing most of them after graduation. By offering chaplaincy programs at theological schools, the schools are starting to signal that, whatever the benefits of CPE may be, this “add-on” approach may not be adequate.

Unlike the congregational leaders for whom theological education was traditionally designed, chaplains need an education that is both broader and more practical. Today’s chaplains, given the diversity of the American population, need to know a great deal about multiple religions. They must also have skills such as deep listening, thinking through ethical and theological questions from multiple religious and scientific perspectives, and responding to crisis and trauma.

It is too early to say for sure, but we are starting to wonder if chaplaincy might someday become the primary model for professional religious leadership, as American religious demographics continue to shift. While congregational clergy teach and guide from the best wisdom their own tradition has to offer, chaplains work with people from a range of spiritual and religious backgrounds, including those who do not belong to any religious group, and provide help and comfort in times of trauma. Theological education that emphasizes the knowledge and skills that are central to chaplaincy might even benefit congregational clergy in their efforts to connect with people in the communities that surround their churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

We hope 2018 will hold fewer disasters than 2017. While we wait to see, we recognize continued changes in theological education that include growth in the number and range of chaplaincy programs taking place in theological settings. It is chaplains, an interviewee told us last year, who bring “peripheral vision” – reminding people of the big picture in the context of personal challenges and institutional dilemmas. Perhaps they are bringing that to theological education as well.

Beth Stroud is a Research Fellow at ACPE, Inc. and a doctoral candidate in Religion at Princeton University.

About the Author

Wendy Cadge, Ph.D.

Wendy Cadge, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University.

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