On one hand, planning for a career as a Chaplain is easy – get board certified and get a job. Well it is that easy, sort of (if you consider about two extra years of career training easy), but getting to the place of “I want to be a Chaplain” is much harder.
Personally, I did not plan on becoming a Chaplain. I had a background in undergraduate and graduate level psychology from a religious college, had interned and worked in heath care settings after that, and while in seminary developed a passion for pastoral care. However Chaplaincy was never in the picture. Now I see that my path led me right to this career.
When most people think of Chaplains, the immediate picture that comes to mind is someone working in either a military or hospital environment. It’s true that those two areas have probably the most visible Chaplain departments, but there are also Chaplains for prisons, hospices, sports teams and police and fire departments. Some career paths in Chaplaincy are more clear-cut than others, so I wanted to make some suggestions for those considering a career in Chaplaincy.
While it’s true that Chaplaincy is generally considered a matter of passing the certification process, getting up to that process is murky water. There aren’t programs for Chaplains in college, or even in most seminaries. Chances are you will be piecing together your own program if you are a college student or seminarian. Many seminaries don’t even consider Chaplaincy, as well as other types of practical ministry, as a path. You are either going to be a traditional pulpit minister running a church, a youth leader, a scholar, or an evangelist. There just isn’t a lot of formal training out there for people wanting to do ministry in non-traditional settings, the areas I call practical ministry.
Here’s a run-down of some things to keep in mind if you’re just getting started in considering this field.
- Get as much of an education as you can in psychology and counseling. You don’t have to plan on licensure as a Professional Counselor, but knowledge and skills in various modes of counseling, including family systems, cognitive behavioral psychology, and psychodynamics will help a great deal. Consider majoring or minoring in psychology in college if that’s an option. Knowledge of addiction is a tremendous help in many circumstances, and a basic awareness of psychiatric disorders such as clinical depression and schizophrenia will also help.
- In seminary, focus on classes geared toward the caring fields such as pastoral care. Some seminaries and colleges have programs set up especially for those entering practical ministry fields such as pastoral counseling and social work in faith-based agencies. If your seminary doesn’t offer counseling classes, see if you can transfer credits from other programs, such as courses in counseling, medical ethics, or family therapy. Classes in ethics will also be of benefit, as will any courses available on understanding human suffering and theodicy.
- Take CPE as soon as you can. Many denominations require at least one unit of CPE for their ministers even if they aren’t going in to Chaplaincy. If possible, do your CPE units in different settings to give you an idea of what working in those areas would be like. If you are planning on becoming a certified Chaplain through BCCI you will need at least four units, and the sooner you get started on them the better. Also be mindful of what group is certifying your CPE units. The main certifying body in the United States, BCCI/APC, will only accept one unit of CPE that is completed in a program other than theirs (CPSP for example).
- Have board certification as a goal from the start. Certification is a long process that can require a lot of stamina to get through, so keeping it as a goal will make sure it doesn’t end up on the back burner. It’s much harder to decide later on that you want to become board certified. Board certification isn’t always required, but for the best positions it is. Especially in health care, certification is becoming a standard requirement.
- Volunteer in the environment you wish to work in as a chaplain. This I think is one of the most important parts of discerning your call in this area. My introduction to chaplaincy actually started while volunteering at Connecticut Hospice while in seminary. Volunteering lets you see the rhythms, pace, and procedures of a position and environment. It’s also the best way to see if you are cut out for a certain environment like a prison, hospital or hospice. These places need volunteers as well, and your time will benefit you both tremendously.
- Vary your CPE experience if you can. Don’t spend all four units with the same supervisor or location. You will learn different things from different people and places, and mixing things up will keep you on your toes. This will all depend on what kind of options there are in your area of course. You can also consider taking a unit through CPSP, which is very similar to the program through ACPE but with a different certification process and slightly different teaching methodology. Bear in mind though that ACPE will only recognize one unit of CPE obtained through CPSP if you’re looking for certification through them, but CPSP will recognize any units obtained through ACPE programs.
- Connect with other Chaplains. I can’t stress this enough either, but connecting with and talking with people who are doing what you would like to be doing is essential. I remember talking with a pastoral counselor at a church just before graduating seminary about his position and what he did to get there. A year later, I had his position! Connecting will not only keep you in the loop regarding potential positions but also give you a forum for questions and feedback. Connecting online through services like LinkedIn as well as organizations like the Association of Professional Chaplains is also a key part of your preparation.
- Expand your horizons. Talk with others of different faiths and traditions – reading about them doesn’t substitute. You’ll encounter many different traditions so learning to be open to them will be necessary. Knowing everything about them won’t be.
Chaplaincy remains, I think, the hidden gem of ministry. A friend of mine who I had pulled into Chaplaincy had been a Baptist minister prior, and said that he wished he had known about this ministry in seminary. If your nature and passion fit, you’ll find a very rewarding career ahead of you.