Monday, March 26, 2007

To Become an Episcopal Chaplain

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.


Andrew Gerns said...

As a Priest who left "real" ministry to go back to full time parish ministry (let the reader understand {g}), let me say that your outline here is at once accurate and invaluable. It should be required reading of at least every bishop, every Canon to the ordinary or for ministry, and every COM as well. Getting the nuance right between the pastoral role of the diocesan bishop and the endorsing role of Suffragan Bishop for Chaplaincies is crucial. The process is not as complicated as it sounds but, like the general ordination process, the right things have to happen and many people either get impatient or inadvertantly jump steps.

Thank you.

Marshall Scott said...


Thanks for the compliment. It means a lot, coming as it does from one who knows.

We miss you at AEHC meetings. I heard a rumor that next year we're in Pittsburg. You should make it!

Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies said...

Thank so so much for this helpful blog!

I am writing as part of the Diocesan Chaplain "News You Can Use" blogging team. My name is Shelly, and I am the Assistant for Chaplain Endorsement here in the Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies.

I'd like to let you know that we will be updating our online applications for healthcare endorsement (located at to reflect the need for updated endorsements and a need for a better explanation of what happens when you click "send" on that form! When you apply for endorsement, we send a letter of concurrence to your diocesan bishop, asking if you have completed your Sexual Misconduct Training, and asking if you are in good standing and if the bishop can fully support your endorsement. Once we receive that concurrence back, we issue your endorsement.

Finally, a note about the ordained/lay chaplain issue: some bishops just refuse to sign off on an endorsement for a lay chaplain, citing the lack of accountability a layperson has to his or her diocesan bishop. It is not that they have a mistaken idea that chaplains must be ordained: they just won't acknowledge the vocational ministry of laypeople (I have some rather fierce opinions about this snooty dismissal of laypeople pursuing their baptismal covenants, but since I'm writing on behalf of the office right now, I'll digress). Please, please be aware of where your bishop stands on this issue before you begin to seek endorsement. Our office is here to help provide training and advocacy for you (and moral support - I'm in the office on Fridays! Give me a call!), and we will try to work something out with your bishop if he or she proves intractable.

Much love, and thanks again, Fr. Marshall.

Marshall Scott said...

Shelly, thanks for your clarification. This is a helpful addition to what I hope is a helpful post as people seek to explore their vocation.

I can acknowledge the concerns of bishops who worry about the accountability of lay folk. At the same time, I would think their participation in the endorsement process would reassure them. If they believe an endorsed chaplain, even lay, has acted incorrectly, they have the capacity to remove endorsement, which is required for those of us certified or seeking certification, and also by some institutions.

Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies said...

Exactly. There are ways to be held accountable that are not part of the bishop/priest pipeline.

We recently had one diocese decide that it no longer wanted to endorse lay chaplains. Bp. Packard did some marvelous negotiating, and the result was that the endorsement of lay chaplains was held to the following standards:
1. A proviso that the endorsement of a layperson could be withdrawn at any time at the Bishop’s discretion.
2. The chaplain must at all times maintain his or her APC Board Certification, and must provide evidence of it to the Bishop’s office.
3. The chaplain must actually be employed by a qualified organization which provides supervision.
4. The request for endorsement should come from the APC and/or the Office of Bishop Packard.
5. A renewal of Bishop ________’s endorsement should occur concurrently with the APC’s endorsement update requirement: every 5 years.
6. The chaplain’s ministry should regularly be remembered during the Eucharist at the local parish the chaplain is affiliated with, and Bishop _____ should be informed as to which parish has this connection to the chaplain.

It's a little stringent, but it worked.


Charles D. Bush said...

Thanks for this blog post. Question: what sacramental "privileges" if any do Episcopal Lay Chaplains have?



On twitter: chaplain_mdiv10

Marshall Scott said...

Charles: the acts appropriate for an Episcopal lay chaplain depend somewhat on the diocese. In addition to the possibility of being licensed as Eucharistic Ministers, some bishops have allowed lay visitors to carry oil for healing. There is provision in the Prayer Book for a deacon or lay person to hear Reconciliation if a priest is not available. It provides a response for the person to make that speaks of God's forgiveness, but is not absolution.

Charles D. Bush said...

Thanks for your feedback. Please also see my blog post

Charles D. Bush said...

Fr. Marshall,

You note in your blog post that "four units is four units". I have one Level I unit under my belt. Don't my additional units have to be Level II units?

Thanks, as always.


Marshall Scott said...

Actually, Charles, no, they don't. Now, if you're not rising to the occasion of Level II your supervisor should confront you about it. However, the APC Standards don't specify that for APC certification.

In part that's because ACPE has phrased its expectations differently at different times over the years. So, what ACPE expects of programs in terms of development of students is not identical of what APC expects of applicants for certification as clinical chaplains.

Charles D. Bush said...

Fr. Marshall, I am starting a CPE residency this fall here in Atlanta. I've started a new blog which I will use during that. You can follow me at

I appreciated your recent article at Episcopal Cafe.


Charles D. Bush said...

Fr Marshal

An update on me: last night I was commissioned as an Episcopal Lay Chaplain, on my bishop's behalf, by my rector. Hooray!


Marshall Scott said...

Charles, congratulations! I'm excited for you - and I can tell you're excited!

Kairos said...

I am being called to volunteer ( lay)chaplain here in Northern Indiana under the Episcopal faith I been in contract with my Diocese
bishop Ed little and we have no program. I do hold a lay worship leader for prion ministry. an I am under supervision with my priest The Reverend Corinne Hodges, is there a program or outline of chaplain for we could use for prison and street ministry chaplain and will I can fine it I am very involved in Kaios prison ministry, m your help is grate need everthing I have found has been on health care chaplain my email is

Marshall Scott said...

Kairos, I apologize for being slow in noting your comment and responding. I will be happy to get back to you using your email address.

stephanie said...

Thank you for your advice to aspiring chaplains. I found my calling later in life (age 40) and am about to begin my senior year in college. I am going to have a BA in Religious Studies with a minor in Psychology. I am hoping to attend Claremont School of Theology as well as Bloy Housefor my my MaDivinity. I was not aware I could go ahead an take 1 hour of CPE. I've worked in a clinical hospital pharmacy setting for nearly 20 years and am hoping to move into hospital chaplain setting. Your blog was very helpful.

Marshall Scott said...

Unknown, glad to be of help. You can go ahead and take CPE, of course. You'll soon learn that "one unit" of CPE is a more extensive commitment than "one hour" academic class.

Andrés Herrera said...

Hi Marshall,

Your blog has been a great resource for me as I start my journey into chaplaincy. I'm from Chile and have a BA in Pastoral Theology. I have been accepted in a CPE program this summer. I come from an independent church but have previously been in other denominations. I'm mostly interested in hearing more about the Episcopal Church, what resources you can recommend for someone interested in this faith tradition. So far from what I have been reading I'm finding my place in the Episcopal Church and will explore it when I arrive in the US.

Colin Smith said...

I am currently working as a volunteer Interdenominational Chaplain at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix one day a week. At age 75 I am not seeking to get Episcopalian commissioned but I do this with my Bishop and Rector's knowledge and encouragement. At Church I am Director of the Altar Guild, Eucharistic Minister and many other duties.

Is there any qualification/certification that I could obtain within the Episcopal Church without studying for a significant period of time/degree?

I have looked on Google and am not sure under which category Airports would be classified.

Marshall Scott said...

Colin, thanks for writing. I have done my share of running through Sky Harbor, and waited once or twice (but more often running with quick connections). I think we would be happy to see your work as healthcare, in that you're contributing to the coping of patients and employees. On the other hand, it is arguably a street ministry, with a well defined "block," and an awful lot of "foot traffic."

On the other hand, I don't think either is critical. I am absolutely happy to hear about this. We have had in the past an Episcopal chaplain for one of the traveling casts of a major circus, and an Episcopal chaplain for a NASCAR track. So, while not common, the sort of work you're doing with the public is recognized. One thing it does share with many of us in healthcare, or at least in hospitals, is that you have brief relationships, seeing many of your travelers only once and only briefly, as you seek to reflect the Gospel in each encounter.

I regularly advocate for colleagues in healthcare institutions that they seek Ecclesiastical Endorsement, as an expression of accountability. The essence of Ecclesiastical Endorsement is the knowledge and support of your bishop, and you have that. At the same time, our Endorsing Officer at the Episcopal Church Center, the Rev. Margaret Rose, focuses on formal endorsement procedures for those of us who need them for a professional organization. It seems to me that you have the endorsement you need, and have expressed your willingness to reflect the Episcopal Church's ministry, and to be accountable to the authority of the Episcopal Church. You have the endorsement of your vocation for your work in the meaningful and functional sense, and I can't imagine that you would need anything more.

If you were interested in connecting with chaplains in healthcare, we'd be happy to have you learn about the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains. I think, too, we could perhaps help look for connections with "first responder" chaplains (police and fire chaplains) who are Episcopal, because there are ways that your work is like theirs. Feel free to ask here, or to email me through my profile page, if you would like more information. And, again, thanks for writing.