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what interfaith chaplains are and aren't

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

clarifying the role of interfaith spiritual care

outside of the world of organized religion, it can be difficult to conceive of the role of a chaplain as a contributing partner to our holistic wellness. we can easily imagine that doctors partner with us for our physical health (although it often doesn't feel like a partnership) and that therapists are present for our mental and emotional health needs, but what are those of us without church homes to do when it comes to partnership for our spiritual health? where do we go to talk about our connections to divinity (whether that's a diety, a feeling, the vast and unknowable universe...), with whom do we discern and discuss our own personal systems of values and of meaning-making, and where do we go to have our very existence validated and witnessed without any externally-imposed agenda or judgment?

for me, spirituality has always been very personal part of my being, mostly for the simple fact that nearly everyone with whom i'd ever discussed it before had some sort of agenda to change, steer, or shape it. i'm an incredibly independent and independently-minded person, and religious evangelism leaves (and has always left) me running for the hills with a bitter taste on my tongue. for this and other reasons, i never knew that anyone existed as a safe and neutral sounding board where i could "work out and through" my own systems of meaning without pressure to change. i've had people in my life who happenstance came close to this, but never the full monty.

limitations of language

one of the challenges, when it comes to talking to people about chaplaincy, is that language tends to fail us in a big way. the word "chaplain", despite its modern diversity, has very christian roots. in the fourth century, the cape or capella of saint martin of tours, a roman solider famous for cutting said cape in two to clothe a beggar, was a closely guarded religious relic of immense importance to the merovingian kings. the priests charged with care and keeping of the treasure were called capellani, and the place in the church where it was stored eventually earned the name chapel for that reason. over the years, as language morphed and changed, the capellini became chaplains, and despite no longer necessarily being charged with caring for a holy vestment, the name stuck to those who cared for chapels and their visitors.

despite the christian roots of the word, today, there are "chaplains" of every stripe. one can become a buddhist chaplain, a protestant chaplain, a muslim chaplain, a catholic chaplain, and so on. the most common route to chaplaincy is via a masters of divinity degree from seminary with a focus in chaplaincy (an overwhelmingly judeochristian field of study overwhelmingly gate-kept via cost of attendance), but there are other ways to become board certified within one's own tradition, and even for those without a religious tradition. (the super-rad head chaplain at harvard is a secular humanist!)

despite the variety present within modern chaplaincy, many folks hear "chaplain" and think "christian preacher" or "catholic priest", and they imagine that the job of this person is to deliver religious teachings or direction with specific ideas on the "way things should be" or what a person should think, do, or believe. while there are certain situations, the military for instance, where chaplains may have more overtly religious roles, any chaplain worth their salt should be able to be present for a person, provide comfort and listening, prompt them to greater self-enquiry, and assess and address spiritual needs without the chaplain's own spiritual or religious tradition ever bubbling noticeably to the surface.


one of the reasons that i chose interfaith chaplaincy training as my entryway into this work, in lieu of figuring out how on earth i'd pay for another master's degree, was in the pure possibility it represented, outside of the confines of any one religious tradition, of simply being able to be present with other humans. we all of us reckon with systems of meaning, of ultimate purpose, of personal philosophy, regardless of whether or not we belong to a religious tradition or spiritual community. we all love and lose. we all grieve. we need to make meaning of our experiences. we all have to make complicated decisions and face uncertainty. why on earth, then, don't all of us have access to the type of care that can hold all of this? if have a doctor for my body and therapist for my mind, why shouldn't i have a chaplain for my soul?

and i don't mean soul in a religious sense, simply by virtue of my own belief system. i mean it like socrates meant it--the chariot driver constantly balancing the dialectical tension between the horses of opposing forces of "right" and "wrong". i mean it like kierkegaard meant it--the interrelationships a person has with the world around them, with their own concept of self, and with divinity. there's a part in us that wrestles, and that struggling and striving needs to be witnessed and cared for. that's where chaplains come in. that's what we do--we're witnesses.

what we aren't: religious leaders (necessarily)

you can find good and bad chaplains, in the same way you can find good and bad chiropractors, but a good chaplain acting specifically in a chaplaining capacity isn't there to instruct you in the tenets of a religious tradition. there are other church members and clergy who will gladly do that for you. the priest is the one who delivers mass, takes confession, and instills doctrine; the chaplain sits next to you quietly and pats your hand when you're weeping in a pew on a weekday. no fire. no brimstone. just presence.

what we aren't: healthcare providers

i laugh and tell folks curious at my combination of vocations (chaplain and midwife) that midwifery is really about 60% chaplaincy, 20% advising, and 20% actively treating. so much of what we do in out-of-hospital midwifery care is just listening, asking honest, open questions, or being present. most of labor simply involves me waiting and calmly holding space. i can't do it for them, but i can do it with them. as a chaplain, i also hold space, but i don't fix or treat. this is especially important when i work with pregnant or postpartum people. because it's a shift in roles, it's important to know that my listening doesn't extend to medical suggestions or treatment.

what we aren't: therapists

this is a biggie. similarly to the "not a healthcare provider" reminder, the fact that we aren't therapists means that we are best utilized in one of two ways: as companions for people who feel that their mental health is sturdy (not perfect--sturdy), or as supplements and complements to regular mental and emotional health care with a therapist. by way of comparison, if i wanted to keep my bones strong, i might see an herbalist for a formula for good mineral balance. if i had broken a bone though, i'd definitely being seeing an orthopedist for acute treatment and also an herbalist for repair support. for people working through and with acute or chronic mental health challenges, a chaplain is a good and also. for the "worried well", we can be a first place to land.

what we aren't: life coaches

in my quest to deepen my skills at honest, open question-asking, i've come across many resources that seem to be designed for life coaches. out of morbid curiosity, i've also checked out a couple of the better known "schools" and training programs for life coaches. oof. what i mostly found was a cultish and depressing mix of multi-level-marketing-type nonsense that came with pricetags (i kid you not) upwards of $20,000 for 9-ish-month training programs. the curricula seem designed to cater more towards people who's "best lives" could be lived through high-level capitalist hustle and uber-productivity. it was a land of veneers--lots of makeup, lots of jewelry, lots of expensive clothing, LOTS of photo filters. one thing i can promise: as a chaplain, i don't have a 97-point, $6000 plan for getting you to "your first million". i don't want to "make" you into anything. i want to be a place where you can safely find out who the heck you are. veneers off, sweatpants on. you're enough.

i hope this helps clarify a bit what the work is an isn't. it's hard to talk about chaplaincy because the word is religiously loaded. it's hard to talk about chaplaincy because what we "do", when we describe it out loud, doesn't seem like much. it's hard to talk about chaplaincy because there are many misconceptions about scope and role. basically it's this: you pull up a chair, i pull up a chair, you start talking when you're ready, i ask you clarifying and deepening questions, and you get just a little bit further towards figuring yourself out.

reflection to share in the comments below: what was a time in your life that you could have used a chaplain? how might someone in this role have helped?

be well, keep growing, keep going.

abby hall luca

the hearth chaplain

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