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How to Become a Hospital Chaplain

Find out how to become a hospital chaplain. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in hospital chaplaincy.

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Do I Want to Be a Hospital Chaplain?

Hospital chaplains give spiritual counsel or advice to hospital patients and their family members and friends. They have in-depth knowledge and expertise that guides them in talking with people faced with medical crises and other challenges. As part of the clergy field, they pray with and counsel people who have spiritual and emotional needs. They are authorized to perform religious rites and ordinances. Some hospital chaplains read specific sacred texts including the Holy Bible, Torah, or Koran. This work might be emotionally draining at times, but seeing the positive effects of their efforts could be rewarding to many of these professionals.

Job Requirements

At least a master's degree is required, and some employers might seek applicants with doctoral degrees. Hospital chaplains can be non-denominational, which means that they can give spiritual advice and encouragement to people from varying religious backgrounds. Many take on leadership roles and are in charge of supervising volunteers and other hospital personnel. They often have excellent communication skills and the ability to give comfort to patients, their families, and hospital staff. They are active listeners when individuals need sounding boards to express their challenges.

The table below outlines the requirements of hospital chaplains as shown in job ads posted on the Association of Professional Chaplains website (professionalchaplains.org) in the months of August to October 2012.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree (some employers prefer doctoral degrees)
Degree Field(s) Religion, pastoral counseling, divinity, theology
Licensure and/or Certification Ordination/certification by Association of Professional Chaplains or other religious bodies and/or specific certification such as that offered by the National Association of Catholic Chaplains
Experience 2-5 years of experience as clergy or chaplain; experience in palliative care and hospice
Key Skills Human relations, spiritual assessment, counseling, leadership, and communication skills
Computer Skills Word processor to generate reports or correspondence
Technical Skills Ability to navigate the Internet for online continuing education courses; ability to use the latest technological tools for communication
Additional Requirements Comprehensive knowledge of ethics

Step 1: Acquire an Undergraduate Degree

Aspiring hospital chaplains will need to complete a bachelor's degree as the first step toward completing graduate school and preparing for a career in this field. Bachelor's degrees in religious studies or biblical studies provide good foundational studies for aspiring hospital chaplains. These areas of study focus on critical thinking, biblical worldviews, history of the church, and inductive bible studies.

Success Tip:

  • Acquire experience through volunteer programs. Most employers prefer chaplains who have experience in hospital settings. Therefore, a great way to start establishing a career is to volunteer in hospitals. Volunteering requires communication, administration, and teaching skills, all of which are applicable to the field of chaplaincy.

Step 2: Acquire a Graduate Degree

Most hospitals hire chaplains who have completed a master's degree in divinity or a related field. Some chaplains acquire their master's degree from accredited colleges and universities; others attend seminaries to earn the degree. Master's degrees commonly completed by chaplains usually focus on biblical counseling, pastoral care, or other related fields.

Success Tips:

  • Receive Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Hospital chaplains may obtain CPE training overseen by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). CPE is an interfaith educational program that supplements classroom training by focusing on providing supervised experiences with patients to train students and ministers to work with people in crises (www.acpe.edu). Programs are offered at CPE centers in hospitals and other healthcare institutions, including hospice facilities, mental health facilities and even correctional institutions. Students should check the requirements for CPE education set by the certifying entity they plan to use.
  • Seek certification. Depending on education, training, and faith, hospital chaplains may be required to or may choose to seek certification to advance their careers. The National Association of Catholic Chaplains, (NACC), for example, offers certification that demonstrates the competencies and skills of the clinical minister. The Association of Professional Chaplains (www.professionalchaplains.org) is another source of continuing education, certification, publications, and job opportunities. Some certification programs include residencies in hospitals as part of their training programs.

Step 3: Complete a Residency

Once hospital chaplains complete the 12-week CPE program or other selected educational and certification programs from accredited institutions, a two-year residency period under the supervision of a senior chaplain is recommended. In addition to working with patients, families and staff in the hospital, the resident chaplains are required to attend lectures and consultations.

Success Tips:

  • Work as a member of the clergy or as a church layperson. Clergy positions encompass counseling, ministering, teaching, and preaching, which are necessary skills for chaplains. Some relevant occupations that provide experience in the field include pastoral caregiver, pastoral supervisor and pastoral counselor. Aspiring hospital chaplains can even consider being a part of the church board or committees to refine the skills of leadership.
  • Learn more about state licensing requirements. Aspiring chaplains who would like to focus on counseling patients or families can also consider getting state licenses such as those designated for licensed professional counselors. Counseling licensing requirements vary from state to state; resources for researching the possibilities could include the state's licensing board, mentors or spiritual directors, schools or certification agencies. The American Counseling Association also provides information on licensing procedures or state professional counselor licensure boards.

Step 4: Find Employment

After completing the necessary education, certifications and work experience, aspiring hospital chaplains can use their contacts, their certification board or their seminary to locate potential work opportunities. Job searches for the more general title of chaplain could yield jobs in hospitals.

Success Tip:

  • Consider a doctoral degree. Hospital chaplains can consider acquiring doctoral degrees. Depending on what type of medical or hospital environment they are working in, they may find that acquiring a doctoral degree would be a stepping stone to higher levels of ministry or to director or administrator positions. Chaplains will need to weigh the investment of time and money needed to complete a doctorate.
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