Update note: Many folks find this blog because they are interested in this topic and so in this post. This was written now ten years ago, and while much of this has not changed, some things have. I would note especially that the contacts and application for ecclesiastical endorsement in the Episcopal Church have changed. For the most up-to-date information, please review here and here. Also note that the link in the blog sidebar to the endorsement application is current.
Periodically, someone comes to me looking for information on becoming a hospital chaplain within the Episcopal Church. Usually it’s a phone call, or an email from the web site of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains (AEHC). Sometimes I infer the question from the search string that brought them to the blog. However, just a few days ago one person emailed me to ask about it. Having laid out my thoughts on the matter to him, I thought I would share them here.
First, let me lay out a broad outline. If you’re exploring a call to chaplaincy, I think you should keep in mind the standards of the professional chaplaincy certifying bodies. There are two in the United States who certify chaplains for clinical practice (as opposed to being educators): the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) and the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP). While there are some small differences, the basic prerequisites for certification are the same: a Bachelor’s degree and a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) or equivalent, both from accredited schools; and four units of Clinical Pastoral Education (which I’ll come back to). They also include “ecclesiastical endorsement” (which I’ll also come back to).
About seminary: the specific Bachelor’s degree isn’t critical. The MDiv is; and unless you already have some significant theological study under your belt, I would concentrate on that and not worry about equivalency. The “equivalent” is essentially the same courses with the same number of hours, but accomplished in a context that didn’t result in a degree. If you haven’t started, it’s easier, really, just to get the degree.
Any good seminary program can provide a good foundation, because good basic training in ministry is the foundation for good chaplaincy. At the same time, there are some things you might think about that might contribute. One is a school in a major metropolitan area. That would allow more opportunity to integrate some CPE and some other types of clinical experience in to your seminary program, and perhaps allow for some one-on-one mentoring.
Within the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin has an extension Masters in Pastoral Care that is oriented in training lay people for chaplaincy. While it would not be the equivalent of an MDiv (not enough hours), you might be able to integrate the classes into an MDiv program. ETSSW has a long history of connections with CPE programs in Austin. I believe the School of Theology of the University of the South at Sewanee also has a CPE program connected with the seminary.
I get asked whether an Episcopal seminary makes a difference. There is always some advantage to attending a Episcopal seminary or a recognized program – for example, the Anglican programs at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas (at SMU) or Candler School of Theology in Atlanta (at Emory). Seminary is as much about formation and acculturation as it is about academic learning. You’ll need to pursue education that will be supported in your discernment process.
About CPE: are some CPE programs better than others? Are there any CPE programs that jump out as being especially good? Sure; but there are some other things you need to think about. First, understand the importance of CPE in training for chaplaincy. Yes, it is usually done in a hospital setting, and so allows form some hands-on experience. However, it’s more important as the opportunity to learn about yourself as a minister, about the gifts God has given you for ministry, and about how you use those gifts and might use them better. In that process the relationship with the individual supervisor is very important, and that need to be a part of your own assessment of interviews in any CPE center. So, in a real sense “good” or “better” has a lot to do with what’s good or better for you.
There are three organizations that accredit CPE centers: the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE); the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC); and CPSP, already noted above. While there are some “cultural differences,” as far as I’m aware all three are using the same model and the same basic tools for CPE. All use the same measure of a “unit,” 400 contact hours, including both clinical time and academic time. So, the “four units” I mentioned above comes to 1600 contact hours.
Episcopal seminaries require or recommend one unit of CPE, and may give some course credit toward the degree. Many people do that in a summer unit, a full time program for 11 to 12 weeks. Most folks think beyond that of completing another three or four units in a year-long, full time program, usually referred to as a “residency.” Many of these residencies to offer a stipend. While the try to be competitive with other programs in the area, few of them pay well enough to support a family. Few centers offer much in the way of support or resources for a Summer unit; but you can always ask.
Some CPE centers also offer an “Extended unit:” the same 400 contact hours spread out over more time – anywhere from 19 to 30 weeks. These don’t pay a stipend, but many folks negotiate flexibility in their work schedule to make the CPE time possible, and so do them while maintaining their regular job. Now, for the certifying bodies, four units is four units; and it doesn’t matter whether you do them four units in one year, or one unit per year for four years. And you don’t need to wait until you’re through seminary to begin the process. Many people take one unit of CPE to explore a vocation to chaplaincy in particular, or even to ministry in general. I would suggest you wait until you finished seminary for most of your clinical training; but you don’t need to wait until you’re through, or even in, seminary to take a first unit.
The certifying bodies also require, as I said, “ecclesiastical endorsement:” some official confirmation that you have “religious competence” within a faith community – in this case, within the Episcopal Church. To seek endorsement for healthcare chaplaincy in the Episcopal Church, you make application to the Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies at Episcopal Church Center in New York. The decision for endorsement is based on conversation with and a recommendation from your diocesan bishop.
So, it’s important that you know your bishop, and that your bishop knows you and your sense of vocation. Be aware that some bishops are only interested in preparing folks for parish work and not in anything else. They do not admit a person to discernment specifically for healthcare chaplaincy. Since the bishop will be central to your discernment and formation process, you need to begin that conversation as early as possible. Like seminary, the discernment process is as much about formation and acculturation as it is about “jumping through hoops.”
By the way, some bishops believe that endorsement for healthcare chaplaincy requires ordination to the priesthood. That isn’t so. They sometimes confuse this with the requirements for endorsement for military and federal chaplaincies, which do require ordination. The Episcopal Church will endorse lay chaplains, but there is expectation of a public service of commissioning specifically for health care ministry. Again, you can get the best information from the Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies.
If you have some background of exposure to health care, it can be valuable. I would also encourage you to think broadly about your vocation. The availability of healthcare chaplain positions can vary a lot, although being willing to search and move nationally helps. Hospital positions have been pretty stable for some time, while the number of hospice positions has been growing. Think broadly about health care ministry (hospice, long term care, pastoral counseling) and don’t narrow your vision to just one setting.
That said, I trust that God will take you where God wants you to be, and provide the opportunities you need. If you’re just starting the process, I wouldn’t worry about what is and isn’t available; because it will certainly be different before you’re done. Moreover, everything you’ll learn, including CPE, is transferable to other ministry settings. Nothing will be wasted. So, pray hard and listen intently for where God is calling you; and trust God to take care of the results.