Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thoughts on Ecclesiastical Endorsement

Over the past three years that I've been writing this blog, I've paid some attention to why people find their ways to read something I've written. I use a service that will let me see, among other things, what keywords in a search engine lead a reader here.

It will not surprise anyone that one of those search strings is, "How do I become an Episcopal Chaplain?" It certainly helps that I've written a post describing the process of becoming a chaplain in the Episcopal Church. It helps, I must confess, that there just aren't that many Episcopal chaplains blogging. In any case, every week I have several visitors here who are exploring becoming an Episcopal chaplain.

And a critical piece of that is ecclesiastical endorsement. Ecclesiastical endorsement is an acknowledgement by an individual's faith community, or by an orqanization representative of the individual's faith tradition, that the individual has what a Christian might call a valid call to specialized ministry in health care. Some years ago I served on the Quality Commission of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). In those days, we spoke about endorsement as signifying "religious competence" in the pastoral care tradition within a faith community: something more than simply being in good standing, and something different than the "clinical competence" certified by such certifying bodies as APC or ACPE or CPSP.

Discussion of the role and value of ecclesiastical endorsement continues. Recently there have been three articles posted at PlainViews on the subject. The first is a complaint about the requirement, with a suggestion that ecclesiastical endorsement no longer be required. The second and the third are the collected responses to the first article, including one from representatives of the community of endorsing groups. I think it worth our time as chaplains to read both carefully.

I was especially struck in the second article by the rationale for endorsement according to the endorsing officers. They wrote,

  • Ministerial and theological competence
  • Good standing and accountability within that faith community
  • Ability to work collegially in diverse and pluralistic environments
  • Willingness to adhere to the codes of ethics prescribed by the faith groups, institutions served and the agencies providing certification
  • Continuing spiritual formation and review
  • Academic and clinical education
Endorsement is not a legalistic ritual; rather it is a mutual covenant and relationship between the endorsee, the endorsing faith group and the certifying body. Each and all are to benefit.

These are important considerations, and especially those relating to accountability, ethical standards, and continuing education.

At the same time, Dr. Paul Brassey, author of the original article. does have points to make.

More broadly, the endorsement requirement presents several problems. First, denominational bodies vary greatly in their requirements for endorsement. Second, some of these endorsing bodies and processes exist to exclude as much as to empower. This exclusivity is accomplished through ensuring that a chaplain’s primary obligation is to the religious denomination. Thus, otherwise gifted, trained, and qualified candidates will be excluded if their spiritual paths have not led them through a denominational structure, or if their personal spiritual journey has led them in a different direction from that of their denomination. Third, this necessity for denominational commitment and loyalty leads many chaplains into the pretense, rather than the reality, of denominational loyalty.

As an Episcopal Chaplain I was quite aware when I was involved in the discussion of the different requirements between and among endorsing bodies. In fact, since the point in endorsement within the Episcopal Church is a person’s call to specialized ministry, a bishop’s confirmation of that has been all that was required. (The process requires contact with the office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies; but Bishop Packard’s office is first going to call the individual’s diocesan bishop to see if the applicant is known.) Some perhaps looked at experience and education as part of that decision, but there has been no requirement. Indeed, some bishops do not understand that, unlike endorsement for the Armed Services, lay persons can be endorsed for healthcare chaplaincy; or that under Canon III a position with a healthcare institution is recognized as a valid “call” just like a call to a parish position. Chaplains in other bodies may have to have as much academic and clinical education for endorsement as they have to have for certification.

There are other bodies too small or too congregational to have a central endorsing agency. There are joint efforts to provide some evaluation of persons within those traditions; but their endorsement isn’t really indicative of accountability to a specific faith community. Moreover, I’m not really all that sympathetic to the concern about “those whose spiritual paths have not led them through a denominational structure.” I continue both to bless and grouse about the student who taught me that enthusiasm is no substitute for groundedness. If a person can’t be determined to be religiously competent within a faith community, by what measure could the person be determined religiously competent at all? And if we’re not religiously competent, it’s awfully hard to distinguish us from spiritually conversant social workers or therapists.

I have also been aware of the many chaplains – perhaps most – who are “led… in a different direction from that of their denomination.” I would assert that most of us are in some sense “marginal” to our communities and our traditions. That’s often what fits us to work in multifaith institutions. At the same time, each of us can face decisions between integrity and institutional connection – which sometimes means between personal belief and institutional security. Each of us can face dilemmas balancing clinical work with denominational loyalty, and questions of how much, if any, “pretense” that might require. The question then becomes, as the endorsing agents note, whether that is the responsibility of the individual or of the certifying bodies who require ecclesiastical endorsement.

Episcopal chaplain discuss among themselves whether there ought to be more requirements for endorsement. Should there be requirement for some CPE? Should there be requirement for some formal ministry training – and if so, how much and what kind? Does it apply only to those of us who find our full time professions in healthcare ministry, or more broadly? How about clergy in parishes that also have nursing homes? How about clergy supervising extensive parish visitation programs, like Stevens Ministries or Community of Hope groups? And, how would such a requirement be established? Would if require an act of Convention? A change to Canons? And how would such a call be signified? It’s clear enough for the ordained. For lay chaplains there is an expectation of a public service of endorsement, usually done in a Sunday service. But, should there be some standardization of those services? And what is a lay chaplains accountability to the bishop and the Church? All those questions are coming up.

I believe strongly that endorsement for Episcopal Chaplains should be required, if only to establish accountability within the church. I strongly believe it needs to be normative for certified professional chaplaincy. Those things said, I do think our own questions about how we should view endorsement within and for the Episcopal Church are important. We need, too, to take Dr. Brassey’s questions seriously, even as we also need to offer support to him and to others who struggle with finding their place in faith communities and in chaplaincy.


John Stangle, NACC said...

This is a well thought out article on endorsement. What amazes me is to put into Google the words, "Chaplain endorsement" and to see all the "scams" for getting endorsement. This seems to me to be part and partial of some of the Protestant and particularily the "evangelical-type" churchs.
In any case, one needs to really know who is giving the endorsement and what it means and this is sometimes a problem (I would suppose)for those requesting endorsements.

Marshall Scott said...

John, thanks for the comment and the compliment.

The certifying bodies (or, for that matter, the Armed Forces) indeed need to know who is giving the endorsement. I'm familiar with some of the comments of those who have difficulty with endorsements. I've thought about what I would do if the Episcopal Church were ever to change beyond what I could live with, and what I would do about endorsement. It would certainly be difficult. At the same time, I think it's still my responsibility to demonstrate my "religious competence;" and I'm not sure just how to do that without articulating my faith in a way comprehensible to others. To do that would align me with one community or another, at least conceptually; and to align with the community officially would say much about my willingness to be accountable.