Thursday, July 18, 2019

Who Is an Episcopal Chaplain?

I have posted this both here and on Chaplair, the blog of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains. I would hope that comments would be posted there, or both there and here, to encourage conversation among members of AEHC and friends of Episcopal Chaplains.

Twelve years ago I posted on my own blog , “To Become an Episcopal Chaplain.” All these years later, it is the most viewed of any of my more than 800 posts. I will be revising that post, as I have done in the past. However, as I prepare to bring that up to date, I wonder if it’s not worth asking a slightly different question: who is an Episcopal chaplain?

I want to think about this for several reasons. One is that the healthcare industry has changed a great deal over my career.  When I was President of AEHC I received several calls with the same question (including one from an office in the Episcopal Church Center): how many Episcopal hospitals are there? But, the question at the time was based on the assumption that most care, or at least most chaplains, was associated with hospitals. One thing I can confidently assert, though: there are fewer hospitals than at the beginning of my career. At the same time, there are more places chaplains are working. For some time, the fastest growing arena of healthcare has been hospice, the one corner of the healthcare industry that requires some form of chaplaincy. While I don’t have specific statistics, I also have a sense that there are more retirement communities and long term care facilities; and any associated with the Episcopal Church will have some provision for spiritual care.

That leads me then, too, to think about the future of AEHC. AEHC in one sense also started with that assumption. Indeed, our original title was the Assembly of Episcopal Hospitals and Chaplains. (We did recognize that the number of hospitals was shrinking. That’s why we changed the name.) If we are to serve the Episcopal Church, and to serve chaplains in the Episcopal Church, we need to consider how we will reach out colleagues in many different venues. 

That also means thinking about how we communicate and reach beyond our certifying bodies. I first became part of the College of Chaplains, one predecessor of APC, more than 30 years ago, and I believe strongly in the value of certification. The annual meetings of our certifying bodies have also made it easy for Episcopalians to gather. That challenges us with two opportunities. The first is to reach out to those who are not certified, and whose positions aren’t going to press them for certification. The second is to demonstrate the value of certification and to support and mentor those Episcopalians who pursue it. 

So, who is an Episcopal healthcare chaplain? The answer is certainly not a matter of order of ministry. Happily, the Episcopal Church can endorse a person in any order of ministry – any of the four – who demonstrates a call to ministry in healthcare.  Nor, really, is it a matter of venue. If the venue is focused on healthcare, a chaplain there is a healthcare chaplain.

That does, though, press us to think about how much healthcare focus we would want to require. There is no question that the care of souls in a parish or a school or a university setting does involve caring for folks with health issues. However, chaplaincy is a matter of focus. Pastoral care of the sick engages the sick person and immediate community. The Chaplain does so, and also engages the institution and in some meaningful sense integrates with the staff and administration.  So, I would insist that the chaplain is serving all patients or clients, and not only Episcopalians. That may not mean that the chaplaincy is paid, or is central to the income of the chaplain. I’m aware of more than one Episcopal long term care facility served by a parish Associate. That Associate participates in leadership, provides an on call response, and serves all residents. The associate is paid through the parish, but functions as a professional chaplain in care of that long term care facility. Another venue to consider is pastoral counseling, Any parish cleric will provide some pastoral counseling; but the professional pastoral counselor is focused on the wider community, and not an individual congregation. These are examples to help us distinguish the healthcare chaplain from the school chaplain, the correctional chaplain, or the military chaplain. (I would note, for example, that the Association of Professional Chaplains will consider unpaid work toward required hours for certification, but the functions must be those of a chaplain.)

Is an Episcopal chaplain endorsed for healthcare ministry? I am a strong advocate of endorsement, and will be writing more about the current status of endorsement. However, there is a lack of information about endorsement, especially among the bishops. That’s a problem, because we’re an Episcopal church, and endorsements are provided by bishops. We have an Endorsing Officer, and an Office of Record to communicate endorsement to the certifying bodies; but the endorsement itself (or the critical confirmation of it) comes from the diocesan bishop. Bishops can also endorse persons for healthcare ministry who are not interested in being certified. While I would very much want to see all chaplains endorsed, I don’t think our recognition of them should wait.

Should we have educational expectations of an Episcopal chaplain? This is an interesting question, with some interesting ramifications. Our current endorsement process only requires that the individual meet the diocesan bishop, and that the bishop feel the person has a vocation for healthcare ministry. I have often observed that in at least this we are virtually pentecostal. Other communions are more rigorous, to the point that one must have completed all paperwork toward certification before requesting endorsement. To some extent, we are better preparing professionals for healthcare work. All our seminaries integrate clinical pastoral education (CPR) into their programs; and many dioceses require or encourage CPE for ordinands who are alternatively educated. On the other hand, these may not be requirements for jobs. While Medicare will not reimburse for hospice care without a chaplain on the team, Medicare takes no position about the qualifications of the chaplain. Also, not only do we endorse lay persons without specifying an educational track, but many dioceses have most if not all ordinands in alternative programs for education that will not integrate CPE. This, like endorsement, can only be addressed with our bishops; and I don’t want to require AEHC to wait to engage such chaplains.

And, for all my enthusiasm to engage those working in healthcare chaplaincy, regardless of how they got there, I want to see us strongly encourage education and endorsement. In one sense, if one is to call oneself an Episcopal chaplain, one must also recognize that those outside the Church will expect a reflection of the Church. Sooner or later, the question is will arise, “What does the Episcopal Church say about…?” An Episcopal chaplain must at least be competent in not only the words but also the faith of the Book of Common Prayer. An Episcopal chaplain must have some sense of what the General Convention has said regarding engagement in the larger community. This is what education can form, and endorsement can confirm. I don’t think that requires a seminary education; but perhaps the same canonical expectations should apply. I don’t know that it requires CPE, but I don’t know of many comparable programs to help a minister understand himself or herself in the practice of spiritual care.

So, these are my first thoughts on the question, “Who is an Episcopal Chaplain.” I would hope we can have an interesting and a helpful conversation on this. I think it would be something to offer to the Church, and something to help shape the continuing mission of AEHC.