Chaplaincy is ministry that meets people where they are. Chaplains are employed in secular settings such as universities, hospitals, and prisons, and are known for doing interfaith and multi faith work around topics such as death and dying, dealing with loss, and dealing with change. They serve people of all religious backgrounds and none, providing hope, comfort, and assistance during difficult times. It came as a surprise when our new research revealed that chaplains are often pigeon-holed as “just religious.”
We at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab recently published a new article in The Review of Religious Research entitled “The Persistence of Religion as a Master Status for Chaplains.” The analysis came out of a project that we began in March 2022. With support from Templeton Religion Trust and in partnership with Gallup. Inc., we asked how the general public understands chaplaincy, how many U.S. adults have interacted with a chaplain, and what those interactions were like. An overview of our findings from the larger project is available in a working paper.
We spoke in-depth with 38 people who had interacted with a chaplain, most of whom reported having done so through healthcare organizations. We asked questions about how the respondent would define a chaplain and if the respondent would choose to interact with a chaplain again in the future. We heard, over and over, the same motivations for speaking with a chaplain: The chaplain is there for religious support. The chaplain is a religious resource. Go to the chaplain for religious guidance. Family, friends, and therapists can handle everything else.
This conclusion was startling. Why would care recipients see chaplains as primarily religious when chaplains are trained to provide spiritual care and comfort to those of all faiths and of none? Chaplains don’t try to force their own religious beliefs on recipients of care. Most chaplains and chaplaincy students describe themselves as versatile, able to offer spiritual care to adherents from any tradition or none. But when a chaplain goes into a room and introduces themself as “chaplain,” our research shows that prospective recipients of care often hear “religious figure,” not “spiritual care provider” or “versatile spiritually informed professional.” Most worryingly, religious care was often seen as a limitation, rather than a unique value proposition.
These interview respondents, in their easy equivalence of a chaplain and a religious figure, show that they are thinking about religion differently than professional chaplains, scholars, and activists sometimes do. Those of us “in the biz” know how different multifaith work is from some of the work of traditional religious organizations. We know that chaplains aren’t your parish minister, but do our constituents know that? Have we been talking past each other? Is something being miscommunicated or misunderstood? Is it possible that words such as “interfaith,” “spiritual,” and even “pluralism” are widely understood to be just another flavor of the same old “religion”?
Rather than a narrow finding that applies only to professional chaplains, we see this research as a broader opportunity to pose questions and provoke thought experiments about religion in the United States. Chaplains who serve on the frontlines of daily life provide an interesting way to think about religious pluralism moving forward. What can chaplains – as well as scholars, activists, and spiritual innovators – do or say to make it clear that by “religion” we include, welcome, even crave to know spiritual and secular identities?
Religious pluralism advocates can and must let it be known that we welcome expressions of nonreligion, one of the most common religious identities in the American population. Pluralism will always include seekers, skeptics, and believers of all stripes. And while chaplains are not yet widely known as welcoming to all, chaplains have great potential as harbingers of new religious understandings. After all, meeting people where they are counts for a lot.