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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Chaplaincy on the Rise

Midjourney AI
As the United States becomes increasingly 'spiritual but not religious,' we're seeing a steep decline in church attendance, leading over time to church closures. It's quite possible that the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the process. Since humans are creatures of habit, once we get out of the habit of going to church we might lose it for good. Still, people aren't necessarily becoming atheists on their way out the church door. What turns us off is dogma and hypocrisy, but that doesn't leave us automatically believing that there is no spiritual reality. And, even people like me who no longer embrace supernatural beliefs find value in a form of secular spirituality. So while we're losing houses of worship, there is a type of ministry that continues on: chaplaincy. 

Dr. Anne Klaesyen is a Leader Emerita of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and she is also Humanist Chaplain at New York University (NYU) and Ethical Humanist Religious Life Adviser at Columbia University. I got to know her while I was an organizer and then board member for Sunday Assembly NYC, which for a time before it shut down met at the Ethical Culture building on Central Park West in New York. She is deeply knowledgeable and very personable, and so I was amused to read the following last year in an article:

When Anne Klaeysen first applied to be the humanist chaplain at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, in the mid-2000s, the deans interviewing her went straight to the point: “The other chaplains want to know,” they said, “if you’re a religion-hating atheist.” Klaeysen readily assured them that no, she didn’t hate religion, but wasn’t surprised by the assumption. 

While now in 2022 it's practically commonplace for Humanist chaplains to serve in universities and other settings (although the US military, dominated by evangelicals, continues to refuse to acknowledge them), but just over a decade ago it was considered highly unusual. In reality, the beliefs of the chaplain are not at the forefront (at least, they really shouldn't be) in an interaction with someone seeking their services. Whether a Humanist, United Methodist, Sikh, or whatever else, the chaplain is there to walk with the individual or family through a challenging time. The chaplain facilitates discernment within the scope of the worldview of the people they are serving. 

In interviews I conducted with chaplains in greater Boston, all said they work around end of life care, and almost all engage with people’s big-picture life questions – what one chaplain described to me as people’s peripheral vision, the questions hovering just out of sight until a crisis forces them into view. Rather than offering answers, chaplains offer a listening ear. Describing her work in a hospital, one explained her role as creating “a bit of a holding space” and to “validate what a person is feeling and give them some sense of hope or stability in the midst of chaotic times.”

According to our recent survey on demand for chaplains’ services, about half of people who connected with a chaplain did so in health care settings, including hospices. Respondents said that chaplains listened to them, prayed, offered spiritual or religious guidance, or comforted them in a time of need. “He was just so compassionate with my mom and I when we lost my grandfather, and it was a sudden loss,” one participant recalled of meeting with a chaplain. “I knew then God had sent him there to help me deal with the pain and loss.” Another said: “We talked for hours and he truly seemed to understand the path my life had been on. I will never forget his kindness!”

Others said chaplains helped them negotiate conflict, advocated on their behalf, or directed them to resources. Loss, mental and emotional health, death and dying, and dealing with change were frequent topics of conversation. Respondents described chaplains as compassionate, good listeners, knowledgeable, helpful and trustworthy. Those who were not religiously affiliated interacted with chaplains in similar ways as those who are not. (Wendy Cadge)

When I was in my early 20s the ministry training program I was in took a field trip of sorts to a hospital, where we learned about the chaplaincy program. I found it all very interesting, and gained a respect for the type of work they do. At the same time, I was certain it wasn't for me, because I wanted to be able to share my faith (at the time I was evangelical), and I was already committed to mission service in Brazil. Now, in my late 40s (and as a Humanist), it's no longer so far-fetched for me to imagine going into that line of ministerial work. It would be good to simply be there for people, using professional tools and techniques that have been proven to help. 

None of this is to say I'll be quitting my day job any time soon, nor that it's my ultimate career goal, but if I were a young person considering ministry now I'd definitely look more to chaplaincy that parish ministry. Parish openings are drying up with the decline of organized religion, while institutions will no doubt continue hiring chaplains to attend to the spiritual hurt of clients as part of their overall care.

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