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Allison Kestenbaum, a chaplaincy educator and a palliative-care chaplain at UC San Diego Health, cared for some of the first coronavirus evacuees.* Before the pandemic, one chaplain was visiting elders isolated at home through a pilot project at Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston. Now the chaplain is visiting with them by phone. Chaplains are sharing these and other ways to care for patients, family members and staff through the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University, which I helped launch 18 months ago to bring chaplains, educators, and social scientists into a common conversation about spiritual care for the future.
At the doors of ICUs, in hospitals, and at nursing homes; with police, firefighters, and other first responders; and caring for the crews of the container ships that are keeping the global economy crawling along, you’ll find chaplains, often working collaboratively with other staff.
Chaplains aren’t a modern innovation; they have a long history in the United States. Since 1789, the Senate and the House of Representatives have had chaplains who offer public prayers at the beginning of each day of congressional business and provide pastoral care for members of Congress, their families, and other staff. Chaplains are required to be available in the military, federal prisons, and the Veterans Administration, and they work in most health-care organizations, including hospice settings. More recently, Fortune 500 companies such as Tyson Foods have started to engage chaplains, sometimes through employee assistance programs, and chaplains are present at most of the country’s largest ports and airports, as well as with many professional sports teams.
In recent years, chaplains have worked with a growing number of social-service organizations; for instance, chaplains are deployed with every Red Cross Disaster Action Team. At some veterinary hospitals, chaplains care for pets and their humans during difficult times. And the Faith Matters Network, in Nashville, Tennessee, launched a program this year to train chaplains to work in social movements. They expected several dozen people to register and ended up training more than 100 chaplains, largely through Zoom.
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There is no commonly agreed-upon definition of the role of chaplains. They are not licensed or institutionally regulated by the state, which means that anyone can call themselves a chaplain and seek work or volunteer opportunities. Most organizations require the candidates they hire to undergo specific training, however, including a master’s degree in a relevant field, supervised clinical training, and the support or endorsement of the prospective chaplain’s religious group.
Chaplains work with people from all religious backgrounds, or from none at all, offering a supportive presence, counseling, and the occasional ritual. In most settings, chaplains are guided by a code of ethics that prohibits proselytizing and requires them to serve everyone. There are no national counts of chaplains, but the field includes individuals from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, humanist, Hindu, and pagan backgrounds.