Chaplains work in numerous sectors in which people face suffering: healthcare, hospice, corporate, campus, prison, disaster and crisis response, social justice movements, and more. Chaplaincy employment opportunities are expected to increase with the rising visibility and research-backed appreciation of their work in recent years, and US demographic changes.
Chaplains work outside of religious institutions. Professional chaplains in the US are differentiated from clergy – religious professionals such as priests, rabbis, imam, who serve adherents within their own religious communities – by where and who they serve, as well as by their training. Buddhist religious professionals may be both chaplains and dharma teachers, depending on their lineage, training, and contexts of spiritual authority and service.
A Growing Need
There is a need for religious professionals outside of religious communities and congregations. Research shows increasing numbers of people in the United States report being religiously unaffiliated, meaning membership in traditional congregational institutions has been falling. At the same time, increasing numbers of Americans report being spiritual, regularly praying or engaging in contemplative practices, and seeking purpose and meaning. This begs the question: Without the previous generations’ ties to religious communities and leaders, who now provides for people’s religious needs? People still seek spiritual and religious education, rituals, and support at times of tragedies, deaths, funerals, weddings, births, family emergencies, traumas, coping with terminal illness, addiction, suicidal ideation, local and collective disaster responses, and so forth.
In the last three years, more than 20% of Americans have had a chaplain appear in moments just like these. The global COVID-19 pandemic has raised the profile of professional chaplains. News stories on NPR, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and AP News drew attention to the role of healthcare and hospice chaplains who could be present to the dying, especially when families were not permitted visitation. They are also seen as indispensable support for frontline providers burning out under the trauma and stress of the prolonged pandemic.
Where Chaplains Work
Chaplains work in settings where people may experience challenges, transitions, conflict, grief, or joy. Chaplains accompany people in their search for meaning, coping with suffering, advocating for institutional or systemic change, and participate in the creation and observance of rituals and ceremonies.
Sectors employing chaplains include: hospitals, prisons, colleges, hospice/palliative care centers, nursing homes, airports, sea ports, all branches of military and the national guard, ecological and environmental organizations, congregational ministries, addiction and recovery programs, mental and behavioral health programs, community celebrants/officiants, search and rescue teams, disaster and emergency response agencies, refugee and humanitarian agencies, etc. Emergent spaces in which people have come forth as chaplains to meet the spiritual needs of people right where they are include: social justice movements, eco- and climate activism, animal/pet/veterinary services, street/houseless communities, neighborhoods, and more.
Finding Employment as a Chaplain
People who wish to serve as chaplains to specific populations or in emergent spaces for spiritual care must often be entrepreneurial to create paid positions for themselves, by demonstrating the value of what they can offer to the mission of a potential employer or offer themselves as volunteers. Other sectors are required to hire chaplains, or already value and recruit chaplains. Some channels from education to training to endorsement to employment are already established, while others are being forged. Students are urged to seek advising regarding the paths and requirements for professional chaplaincy where they would like to serve, as these can vary greatly by sector.