Chaplain Certification: APC vs CPSP vs … SCA??


perhaps we need to drag the shirt out again

So I’ve written several times on the topic of board certification for Chaplains, especially regarding APC/BCCI and CPSP. Those weren’t the only players on the certification game, though. There are certification programs through the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and Association of Jewish Chaplains for example, as well as a smattering of other groups and agencies. Some have been around for a while and are well recognized, while others you will probably never hear of unless you look for them. The newest group to organize and enter the board certification mix has caused controversy though.

The HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, which was founded in 1961, recently announced the formation of a new venture called the Spiritual Care Association (SCA) as a response to what they saw as the growing need to provide “an organized, strong, united, proactive and representative national voice.”

Rather than just rehash or improve upon current standards, SCA looked to design a program from scratch that not only recognized the changing health care world but the changing educational one. Many requirements are the same: CPE, verbatims, work requirements and so on. However, while most (if not all) programs require CPE training, significant documentation and peer review, the SCA chose to add formal testing and simulated patient reviews (like those med school students participate in) to ensure that clinical competencies were standardized and met across the board.

As well as including testing as a key feature, the SCA chose to loosen some of the requirements, including CPE. While BCCI requires at least four units of CPE (1600 hours) through an accredited center, SCA notes that some may be able to become certified with as few as 800. Furthermore, certification does not require a theological or seminary degree, but instead requires a Master’s degree or equivalent in an area relevant to chaplaincy. This includes not only theology but degrees in ethics, counseling and nursing. And regarding CPE, the SCA is going to employ not only traditional CPE programs but distance learning as well. All of these changes were done, according to the SCA, in order to meet the needs of a changing field as well as provide objective, evidence-based grounds for certification. It also recognized that it’s not as much about how many units of CPE you take but how well you are able to integrate what you’ve learned and practice at a high level. Some may do this in 800 hours, some in 1600 or even more.

These changes really rubbed some people the wrong way. Almost immediately I found folks on social media writing “open letters” asking the HealthCare Chaplaincy to reconsider. Many saw the SCA as at best unnecessary, and at worse making an already fractured chaplaincy field even more so. There were calls about “lowering standards” and “betrayal”, among other things. The presidents of the APC, NACC, NAJC and ACPE co-drafted a letter stating “we have not, and will not, water down the standards through a bottom-line-driven, one-size-fits all, multiple-choice approach to certification.” Some took the formation quite personally, seeing the questioning of current standards as dismissive of not only the APC but their own qualifications. Tellingly, I haven’t heard much any negative feedback coming from CPSP, perhaps as they also are viewed as a bit of a “splinter group” from the APC.

This friction between the APC and other groups isn’t lost on anyone. In a post reflecting on the formation of the SCA, George Handzo, Director of Health Services Research and Quality at HealthCare Chaplaincy Network and President of Handzo Consulting, wrote “For those who may not be professional chaplains or who may be new to the profession, one of the great embarrassments in the profession (to me and many others) is our inability and/or unwillingness to have one organization that would speak for the profession- or even sometimes to get along among ourselves.”

I am not a member of either organization currently, so sitting from the sidelines watching this unfold has been interesting, and a bit disheartening. There are many, myself included, who fail to see the cause for so much consternation and negativity. While some don’t see the need to improve the visibility and respect of chaplaincy, I most wholeheartedly can say that this is not the case. While there are certainly health care agencies that support and recognize the need for chaplaincy this is neither nationwide nor across-the-board. In fact I see more of the opposite in effect. Educational opportunities for CPE in my region are few, and health care agencies that require board certification for their chaplains are even fewer. This has promoted the idea, which I wrote about previously, that board certification just isn’t necessary – nice to have, but not as valuable as real work experience. If the HeathCare Chaplaincy can work within the current health care milieu outward to improve knowledge and reception of spiritual care services from within rather than from the outside I think this will be a tremendously valuable contribution to the field. I actually plan to investigate certification further, especially as SCA is recognizing certification through other agencies including CPSP as fulfilling their own requirements, except for the test.

More personally, there were things about the responses to the SCA’s formation announcement that saddened me. So much of it reminded me of watching my church split down the middle many years ago. I remember showing up at a regular service to hear the senior pastor get on stage and talk about what he thought everybody knew about – that two other pastors had left and “taken” a chunk of the congregation with them in order to form a rival church not ten miles away. There was so much name-calling, false information, and hurt going around. However I had no idea what happened or why it happened. Even after I came on staff there “the split” was never formally explained, though there was plenty of insinuation and back-room talk. It was taken very personally by the senior pastor and staff. The emotional feedback of the split changed the dynamics of the church leadership itself. Rather than promoting unity, it became isolated and defensive, seeing other churches as competition. This was so much so that when I signed on as an assistant pastor there, I had to sign a noncompetition clause that stated that if I was let go I could not work for a church within 300 miles. The negativity ate its way through the leadership until it crumbled. New leadership came along with new collegiality. I would hate to see a similar result between the APC and SCA.

I relate this because this is absolutely the last thing I want to see happen between the APC and the SCA, however I already see it happening. Perhaps this is grief-work being done through social media and other platforms that we can shout from. However from the sidelines it seems to be more like defensiveness and pride. Hopefully there can be resolution down the line between not only the organizations in question but their members as well. The SCA certainly seems like a good direction for many, and the APC shouldn’t be threatened by it.

*updated 6/14/16*

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2 thoughts on “Chaplain Certification: APC vs CPSP vs … SCA??

  1. I am 73 and have been privileged to work in a variety of venues. I have served during Vietnam in the medical field, served in Law Enforcement and Paramedic Response Teams, and served as a Crisis Chaplain/Counselor/Chaplain Trainer (specializing in Hospice and Suicide Intervention/Prevention…..mainly for staff and students who worked with Jr. High/High School students…and those that needed to be certified for work with first responders (Fire, Police, and Jail). The main years have been serving in Education (33). I recently “retired” again and have been appalled at the lack of coordination and recognition in the Chaplain field (especially in regards to the Medical Field). I really like the way you presented the possible pitfalls and potential challenges that currently exists. Perhaps, if we had more intelligent approaches, we could collectively establish more meaningful guidelines that could meet our current challenges.

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