This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Chaplaincy for the Theologically Uncommitted

Professional chaplaincy is no longer solely the domain of people who have their minds made up about their theology. Below I'll offer some options for anyone interested in ministering to others as chaplains, but not keen on being anchored by dogma. 

When chaplains began to be a more regular part of the military, hospitals, prisons, and other settings in the United States they were Protestant, Catholic, or — eventually — Jewish. As the century progressed and American society became more clearly pluralistic the chaplaincy began to reflect that reality. Buddhist and Baháʼí chaplains are still not as common as their Baptist colleagues, but change is afoot. 
People are still surprised when news comes out about an atheist chaplain taking a role at a university or elsewhere. While we don't have any in the US military as of the time of this post, I can't imagine that they'll be kept out forever. The American Humanist Association has about 34,000 members, and there are surely many more who hold to Humanism without also holding membership in the organization. I myself am a member of the AHA and also an endorsed Celebrant of The Humanist Society. As such I have the same rights and responsibilities of theistic clergy. Unlike the 'online ordination' offered by the Universal Life Church, my endorsement came about through a deliberative process after having submitted an application and supporting documentation. Further, if I cease to function as a Humanist minister, measured by offering a certain number of ceremonies during a set period, my endorsement cannot be renewed. 

Being a Humanist Celebrant does not qualify me as a chaplain. That's an altogether different endorsement which has it own standards. Like Celebrants, Humanist Chaplains must also continue to serve in their roles in a significant way in order to maintain this recognition. Further, people endorsed as Chaplains by the Humanist Society are eligible for membership in the Association of Professional Chaplains and similar organizations, and through proper preparation are qualified to serve as professional chaplains.

However, since Humanism involves a certain set of ideas, including that ethics can be developed apart from reference to any deity, and a commitment to an evidence-based approach human understanding, this might not be ideal for everyone. So, here are a couple of other options for anyone looking into being a professional chaplain, is open to theism, but who doesn't want to be part of a confessional belief system.

Unitarian Universalism is probably the best-known alternative to creedal religion. Originating in mid-20th century with the consolidation of Unitarian and Universalist denominations into one, this faith tradition welcomes atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, and anyone else who wants to be a part. The clergy is open to anyone willing to go through the rather lengthy process of training and hands-on experience to be ordained and fellowshipped. It would not be correct, however, to say that one can 'believe anything' and be a Unitarian Universalist. Hate does not have a home in this denomination, and those who openly espouse bigotry will find themselves shown the door. That's not to say that all is well, as in fact the denomination is facing a pivotal moment as systemic racism has been brought to the fore, and some don't like it, believing that 'free speech' is more important than loving their neighbor. 

As I've indicated, the path to UU ministry is not an easy one. In addition to a Master of Divinity degree, the candidate must serve in an internship and complete at least one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, in addition to following a number of other guidelines and demonstrating personal spiritual growth along the way. For someone looking to be a chaplain, none of the above should seem too daunting, as the requirements to be accepted as a chaplain in the military and in many other organizations are virtually the same. Speaking of the military, Unitarian Universalist chaplains have long been part of all branches of the US armed forces. 

A final option that checks all the boxes for endorsement that will be recognized by professional organizations and hiring institutions is The Chaplaincy Institute. Described as 'an interfaith seminary & community,' this organization was founded in 1999 and has a partnership with Starr King School for the Ministry for the preparation of its clergy. While many Unitarian Universalist ministers plan to serve congregations once ordained, people ordained through The Chaplaincy Institute are instead usually preparing specifically to serve in institutional settings. While this organizations standards will certainly be as thorough as they need to be for ordination and endorsement, I suspect that it is not as 'fussy' and bureaucratic a process as that found in UUism. 

If you think chaplaincy might be the type of ministry you want to be in, check out The Humanist Society, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and The Chaplaincy Institute.