A new proposal: Three levels of chaplaincy and pastoral expertise -- by Raymond J. Lawrence

01 Feb 2018 7:17 PM | Perry Miller, Editor (Administrator)

At the recent meeting of COMISS in Washington, DC, David Roth and I discussed at length the signs of strife amongst the various chaplaincy organizations, and attempted to imagine together what new constructs might be introduced that would have some prospect of assuaging some of the rivalry and animus that attended the differences among the various chaplaincy and pastoral care and counseling groups. David and I came to the conclusion that a way to begin might be to recognize that each tradition has its own way of functioning, and its own idiosyncratic goals and values. Furthermore, we concluded that such differing goals should be acknowledged and accepted without derogation. In the broad field of chaplaincy, pastoral care and counseling there should be no “one size fits all” approach. After reflecting on our COMISS conversations, I present the following proposal for a possible reframing of the ways we think about the respective work of the various chaplaincy, pastoral care and counseling traditions. I invite others to join this conversation. 


Level 1:

A wide variety of institutions, organizations and clubs appoint or elect “chaplains.” For example, Congress has its own Chaplain. Police departments typically have one or more chaplains. Social clubs often appoint or elect chaplains. Generally in such contexts, the role is detached from any particular religious tradition. The role is largely a formal one, but not extensive nor with many defined tasks. Typically the duties consist only of opening meetings with a prayer or some form of invocation. In rare instances the role may extend to attending a crisis situation with the purpose of providing some kind of comfort. Seldom if ever is there any sort of training for such a role. 

Level 2:

A second level of chaplaincy, typically more finely defined as pastoral functioning, posits that the chaplain or pastor assumes a professional role. That role typically carries the additional label of “pastoral care” and/or more recently, “spiritual care.” In many but not all instances this role is considered a clinical one, that is, attending to and focusing on the data at hand as distinct from ideological concerns. The clinician as clinician always begins not from a position of theory or ideology, but by responding to the presenting data.

Such clinical chaplaincy and the clinical pastoral arena generally owns a large corpus of literature and typically includes a significant training regimen. The quality of training at this level may or may not have some

resemblance to social work training and/or psychotherapy training, depending on the focus and intensity of the training itself. 

As distinct from the clinical posture, this level of training may also involve training in specific religious practices and doctrines to be introduced into the work of caring for persons. For example, there are Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim associations for pastoral care and/or chaplaincy. While there is or should be a clear disconnect between the clinical and the promotion of specific religious practices, this distinction is not always adhered to in practice. Some chaplains attempt to straddle the clinical and the specifically programmatically religious agenda. 

At this level of chaplaincy the role of the chaplain is typically a broad spectrum one, and may involve a complex mix of clinical care and  counseling along side religious rites and rituals. In specifically religious hospitals, for example, we will find a predominance of chaplains from the religious group that owns the hospital. Chaplaincy at this level is generally seen as promoting religion of one sort or another and consequently tends to dilute or even nullify the clinical dimension of care. Such chaplaincy becomes complicated when, as often occurs, the patient and chaplain subscribe to widely differing religious traditions from that of the institution itself. This level of chaplaincy is exemplified generally in certifying organizations such as Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC). The Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) sees itself as a proponent of this perspective.

In this level of chaplaincy, the training regimen for chaplains is generally seen as “education” for “students.” The largest training institution for this level of training at present is the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE).

Level 3:

A third level of chaplaincy is a specialization level extending beyond level 2. This level of chaplaincy posits the chaplain as a religiously-based - generically speaking - pastoral counselor and/or pastoral psychotherapist, but one who does not promote any particular religious sect. In this philosophy of chaplaincy the overt religious doctrines and various religious philosophies fall into the background, and the chaplain assumes a universalist posture. In this approach to chaplaincy the patient will not be aware, optimally, of what particular religious tradition the chaplain subscribes to, if any. This approach to chaplaincy, or pastoral care, gives attention solely to the patient and the patient’s predicament. Listening to the patient and attempting to reach a pastoral diagnosis, and to offer a therapeutic relationship is the principle burden of the chaplain. Such a pastoral diagnosis will transcend the doctrines of any particular religious tradition and function on a universalist level. The focus of attention is entirely on the patient. The training of chaplains in this modality is generally referred to as “clinical pastoral training,” following the medical model, as opposed to “education,” following the academic model.

This approach to chaplaincy follows the philosophy and practice of Anton T. Boisen, who instituted clinical pastoral training early in the twentieth century. Boisen presented himself as a non-medical pastoral psychotherapist in the general tradition of Sigmund Freud. This level of chaplaincy is generally represented by the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP).


Raymond J. Lawrence
CPSP General Secretary