The Pagan as a Professional Chaplain

By Rev. David Oliver Kling, M.Div. 

Imagine the following scenarios… 

— You have recently finished your education at Cherry Hill Seminary and you’ve been hired as a healthcare chaplain at a local hospital.  The Director of Pastoral Care turns to you and says, “Well, since you’re the newest chaplain you get to preach at our bi-annual memorial service for all who have passed away at the hospital since our last service.” 

— You are sitting at an interview for a position as a staff chaplain at a prison.  The warden who is interviewing you says, “I expect my chaplain to be the pastor of the whole prison community.” 

Good advice for anyone interested in chaplaincy would be to suspend your sectarianism.  Institutional settings that have chaplains need their chaplains dedicated to interfaith ministry.   Chaplains need to be of service to all of those within their institutional setting. Suspending your sectarianism doesn’t mean sacrificing who you are as a minister, priest, or cleric.  It means being open to diversity and being able to embrace that diversity to be of service to others where you find them.  This means being strong in your own religious conviction.  Your identity as a Chaplain should flow from your theology and that theology should be expansive enough to embrace the needs of others both within and outside of your tradition.  Suspending your sectarianism means your agenda is one of service and compassion; and the person with whom the Chaplain serves sets the agenda. 

Does being a Chaplain mean I’ll have to do things I don’t want to do?  If you have no tolerance for the spiritual beliefs of others then you might be out of your comfort zone as a Chaplain; however, being a Chaplain doesn’t mean being someone you are not.  If someone asks you for something you do not feel comfortable doing, you should decline in such a way that protects their dignity as well as your own.  For example, if you’re a hospital Chaplain and a Christian patient asks for communion, you don’t have to hold Mass in their room but you could politely refer the request to another Chaplain or someone in the community.  It is how you handle the request that is important.  A Chaplain should be able to recognize what is going on inside themselves emotionally and spiritually and act in a professional manner. 

Chaplaincy brings up all of our personal issues and creates its own anxieties.  As a Chaplain you will encounter a lot of people in diverse situations and in providing care to them a lot of your own personal issues will rise to the surface.  A Chaplain needs to be able to regulate their own anxiety and provide a non-anxious presence to others.  Chaplaincy is less about rational knowledge and more about emotional health.  It’s about entering into someone else’s spiritual distress without getting pulled into it and allowing it to take over.  It’s about being able to function in multiple settings as a leader, being the person who is capable of journeying with someone else and helping them in their life journey.  

Do Chaplains reject academic insight and knowledge?  Chaplaincy is about the balance between the intellect and the heart.  It is not an intellectual exercise that one can do simply from reading a book.  Chaplains will commonly find themselves surrounded by complex emotional states in dealing with people in intense grief, anger, denial, etc.  A Chaplain needs to be able to handle these complex emotional states and this requires the Chaplain to have a degree of emotional intelligence while also possessing a thorough knowledge of their own spiritual tradition.  The Chaplain will draw from their own emotional experiences in order to be of service to others and this requires the Chaplain to continually wrestle with their own emotions so they can understand themselves and identify their own emotional states to help identify the emotional states of others.  A Chaplain should be able to go deep into the emotional and spiritual pain of another because they have gone deeply into their own emotional and spiritual pain.  It is difficult attaining this degree of self-awareness strictly through rational study and discourse. 

A Chaplain is someone who reflects theologically and who uses their theological reflection to inform and empower their care for others.  This is what sets Chaplains apart from other caring professions.  A Chaplain is someone who can assess the spiritual pain of another.  Being able to perform an assessment requires the ability to engage in theological reflection.  A Chaplain is self-aware and is able to deeply reflect upon their own pain in order to journey within the distress of others.   

How does a Chaplain do an assessment?  The emotional and spiritual state of a person can get caught up in spiritual pain that takes one or more different forms.  Spiritual pain often surrounds issues of meaning, hope and hopelessness, forgiveness, and intimacy.  A Chaplain will have sufficiently reflected on these areas within their own life so as to be a compassionate caregiver to another.  Theological reflection is the means in which a Chaplain navigates through the pain of another, and also their own pain, and helps to give this pain a context to be better understood.  Pagans have a wealth of resources in which to do theological reflection; this is a strength of Paganism. 

A Chaplain needs to be both a generalist and a specialist.  A Chaplain will often be called upon to do “minister things.”  An institutional Chaplain could be asked to lead an interfaith worship service, or preach at a memorial, lead others in prayer, or facilitate a support group.  A Chaplain needs to have some knowledge of liturgy, preaching, and education in order to function confidently in an institutional setting regardless of their religious tradition.  This is why Chaplains are trained in seminaries and not in schools of psychology or social work; because a Chaplain needs to be a generalist when it comes to “ministry skills.”  A Chaplain, regardless of their faith background, will be asked by those with whom they serve to perform basic “minister stuff,” and the professional Chaplain will be able to comply with these requests. 

Do Chaplains need to embrace concepts foreign to the Pagan community?  Every profession has its own jargon and culture and Chaplaincy is no exception.  Being an institutional Chaplain often means functioning in a multifaith environment.  The terms that are commonly used within Chaplaincy reflect the general norms of Pastoral Care Departments within the various settings that utilize Chaplains; therefore, it is up to the individual Chaplain to translate these norms into their own contextual usage.  For example, when you hear the word “preaching” or “homiletics” you might translate that into “speaking with authority.”  Likewise, when you hear the term “pastoral care” you might prefer to think of the term “spiritual care” instead.  In order to function professionally in a multifaith setting the Chaplain needs to be flexible and willing and able to translate practices into their own theological and spiritual context. 

A Chaplain needs to be a mirror.  A Chaplain is a specialist in pastoral and spiritual care.  When someone is undergoing intense emotions it is often necessary for them to process their emotions in order to achieve emotional balance and harmony.  A Chaplain is not afraid of grief or emotional distress and will enter into another’s emotional pain and help them through reflective listening.  A Chaplain will effectively be a mirror by reflecting back to a person how they are feeling and what is going on within them emotionally and spiritually.  A Chaplain will mirror back to a person their emotional state in a way that helps them process their feelings.  Without effective emotional processing, people get “stuck,” and Chaplains help people avoid getting caught in emotional loops that often feel hopeless.  When the time is right the Chaplain will help them go deeper into their pain in order to help them find a way out. 

So, can Pagans become professional Chaplains?  Absolutely.  Just like people in other faiths, Pagans can and are serving as professional Chaplains.  You will not get rich being a Chaplain but you will find non-tangible rewards for the compassionate service of Chaplaincy.  The best way to pursue an interest in Chaplaincy is to seek out post-collegiate education in Chaplaincy through graduate level theological studies – such as that offered through Cherry Hill Seminary – 

David Oliver Kling is a graduate of Wright State University holding a B.A. degree in Religious Studies and a B.A. degree in Philosophy. He has a Master of Divinity from Methodist Theological School in Ohio with a specialization in Black Church and African Diaspora Studies. While in college he worked as Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Yellow Springs and while in seminary he served the Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship as consulting minister. After seminary he served as a chaplain resident at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, West Virginia and he is ordained and endorsed by Sacred Well Congregation. His religious background includes Christianity, Wicca, Druidry, Gnosticism, and Roman Paganism. His academic interests include Black Church studies, comparative theology, pastoral care and practical theology.