Becoming a Healthcare Chaplain

What is a Healthcare Chaplain?

Working as a health-care chaplain means spending time at a hospital or other medical facility helping those who are sick, injured, or dying. This often means providing counseling, helping patients work through grief or anger, and sitting with those who are dying. They may provide last rites or other religious services. Health-care chaplains don’t work solely with patients—they may also work with the families of patients, especially those who are losing a loved one. Some health-care chaplains even counsel doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.

A health-care chaplain is a fully certified and ordained chaplain who has chosen to focus on those who are dealing with illness and injury.

Healthcare Chaplain Duties and Qualities

A health-care chaplain generally doesn’t work full-time for the hospital. Like many types of chaplains who offer religious services in secular areas, the health-care chaplain may be a volunteer or may work for the church but is assigned to a particular hospital. Some will have several medical facilities that they provide services for and will spend time at each location every week, while others may provide their services to a large hospital complex.

Health-care chaplains have to be incredibly sensitive to the feelings of those around them. They must be prepared to deal with those who are incredibly angry or in denial about their health. Those who have just been diagnosed may be someone to talk to, but they may also be very hostile to the idea. Some may be very depressed and even suicidal, and it’s up to you as the health-care chaplain to help them deal with these emotions.

Then there are the patients who are dying. Some may want to talk about it, while others may simply want help in facing their last days with dignity. The families of these patients may also need your services, but you have to remember to always be sensitive to what they need—some don’t want to hear that their loved one is going to a better place, while others may need the reassurance that Heaven brings.

A health-care chaplain has to remember that some patients will be of another faith or of no faith at all. You have to understand and respect this, especially if they don’t want your help. If they do, you have to be careful to offer them support, not attempt a deathbed conversion.

Health-care chaplains may be older ministers who have retired from leading their church or may be ordained ministers who are not leaders of a congregation.

Steps to Becoming a Healthcare Chaplain

Becoming a healthcare chaplain is similar to becoming any chaplain in any field. In addition to having a strong faith and a feeling of being called to the ministry, you will need to to earn your bachelor’s degree, and potentially a master's degree, depending on the requirements of your religious group. After completing the minimum education requirements, you must complete the ordination process and earn your chaplaincy certification. Listed below is a brief summary of the requirements to become a healthcare chaplain:

  • Hold a bachelor’s degree in an area such as religion or counseling.
  • Earn a master’s degree in religion or divinity
  • Get ordained by your religious group.
  • Complete a residency or internship if required.
  • Get licensed in the state in which you would like to work.

Some health-care chaplains who work for a hospital or other medical group may actually need to earn a doctoral degree. Holding a Ph.D. in religion may provide an edge over other applicants for a job, although a terminal degree is not necessarily required. While health-care chaplains do most of their work in hospitals and other medical environments, it is not necessary for them to have any medical education or training.

Healthcare Chaplain

Religious Requirements

In order to work as a health-care chaplain, you will need to be ordained. The ordination process varies from church to church, so you’ll want to speak to the leaders in your particular denomination to determine what you have to do. Most churches require those who want to be ordained to show that they have a strong faith and a desire to work in the church. They need to have been active in their religious community and have the support of other members of the church. Some churches require those who are ordained to hold at least a bachelor’s degree in religion. In most cases, you will need to go before a board of ordained ministers for an interview.

Educational Requirements for Healthcare Chaplains

The first step in becoming a health-care chaplain is to enroll in an accredited university and receive your bachelor’s degree. Most people who plan on becoming chaplains will enroll in a religion program. A few may look at other programs, but typically, it’s best to get an undergraduate in some form of religion—religious studies, comparative religion, youth ministry, etc. These degrees will prepare you for working with those in need of counseling or the comfort of a chaplain. You may take courses such as the history of the church, Biblical literature, church leadership, etc.

You might also want to take courses from the psychology catalog, especially those that focus on grief or anger counseling. The techniques you learn in these courses will be invaluable to your work with those who are terminally ill or are holding on to a lot of anger regarding their condition. The more you can learn about how an injury or illness can affect a person’s mental and emotional condition, the better.

While it’s not required that you have any medical training, you may wish to take a few introductory healthcare courses, especially those that look at illnesses and discuss how they affect the body. This information may help you understand exactly what a person is going through, especially if you’re ministering to a patient who doesn’t want to open up about their problems.

Why Earn a Master's Degree?

More and more, a master’s degree is becoming a necessity to gain certification and serve as a health-care chaplain. This advanced degree will help you learn more about religion, the scriptures, and how to lead a congregation. While you may not be leading a church, the techniques can be helpful in learning how to interact with people. You may also be able to focus more of your studies on counseling and working one on one with people.

While it’s not a requirement, some hospitals and other organizations prefer to work with a health-care chaplain who holds a doctoral degree in religion. You may want to consider working towards this terminal degree or returning to school to work on your doctorate later in life.

Why is Accreditation Important?

When looking for a good bachelor’s or master’s program, make certain that the university or seminary you enroll in is accredited. Being accredited means that an outside authority has evaluated the program or university and found that it produces qualified, educated degree holders that contain the knowledge and training needed to excel in their chosen field. There are a number of different organizations that provide accreditation for undergraduate programs, but those that hold accreditation from the Council for Higher Education Association (CHEA) may find that they are able to bypass some of the requirements for certification.

Graduate programs in religion and seminaries are often accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education, the Transnational Association for Christian Colleges and Schools, or the Association of Theological Schools.

Note: Licensing boards will not recognize credit hours earned from non-accredited programs. Make sure to check with school representatives about program accreditation before you enroll, to avoid a painful waste of time and money.

Master's Degree Objectives and Goals

The objective of graduate programs in religion is to provide all graduates with the knowledge, training, and understanding they need to become leaders in their religious communities. While some of these programs don’t specifically aim to educate future health-care chaplains, they do have goals of graduating new ministers who are prepared to work with all members of their congregation in a way that is personal, respectful, and helpful. All health-care chapels will need this type of training.

Earning Practical Experience

Any person who wants to become a health-care chaplain will need to have several years of practical experience. In order to become certified, you’ll need to work under a supervised chaplain for a few years. It’s very helpful if this experience is in a hospital, hospice, or other type of medical facility. If it’s not, you’ll want to do some volunteer work in one of these facilities in order to gain experience working with those who are injured or ill. Gaining this type of experience while working with an experienced chaplain can be invaluable.

Licensing and Certification

You will need to be certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) in order to work as a health-care chaplain. This certification requires that you be ordained and hold a master’s degree, both of which you should have already completed if you’re serious about being a health-care chaplain. Next, you may need to complete some of the educational units offered by the Clinical Pastoral Education program. The APC requires completion of four units for certification, although some of those units may be waived if you have a degree from a CHEA-accredited university.

Healthcare Chaplain Jobs & Job Description

Employed by hospitals, hospices, nursing homes or health science conglomerates, healthcare chaplains speak with patients, friends, and relatives of those in hospital.  While the role does vary from institution to institution, most healthcare chaplains feel comfortable performing these duties each day:

  • Assist patients in accessing spiritual, emotional, and other supports in their communities
  • Assist patient friends and relations in accessing spiritual, emotional, and other supports in their communities
  • Facilitate and counsel family meetings
  • Participate in interdisciplinary rounds
  • Educate staff on spiritual issues
  • Conduct communications and empathy training for employees and families
  • Facilitate the end of life grief process
  • Assist families in releasing regret even while grieving loss
  • Orient new staff, students and volunteers
  • Connect with own faith community
  • Liaise with state and national professional organizations
  • Communicate effectively with care teams
  • Administer religious programs
  • Collaborate members of the clergy and faith teams to provide a variety of accessible worship experiences
  • Lead and facilitate worship services and other services
  • Network and partner with external faith-based groups
  • Advise healthcare teams on religious and end of life issues
  • Be prepared to speak with patients after release or upon transfer to a different facility
  • Supervise and train volunteers
  • Provide support and counseling for staff
  • Empower interfaith dialogue
  • Administer secular services as appropriate
  • Help patients reconcile their behaviour with their decision-making on a variety of issues
  • Help patients discover new ways of living
  • Help patients find peace of mind
  • Facilitate the acceptance of responsibility for patient actions
  • Ensure that patients of all traditions are offered equal opportunities to practice their faith
  • Perform administrative tasks while respecting the doctor/nurse-patient bond
  • Facilitate communication between families and patients
  • Offer regular pastoral counseling
  • Offer crisis pastoral counseling to patients and families in need
  • Coordinate pastoral volunteer services
  • Maintain chapel materials and facility
  • Visit with patients and their families as appropriate and welcome
  • Obtain an official ecclesiastical endorsement from their denomination or faith group
  • Help patients explore questions related to spirituality, religion, end of life issues, vocation and life purpose

Professional Organizations for Healthcare Chaplains

Most chaplains are members of the Association of Professional Chaplains and take advantage of the different resources that it offers. In addition to providing certification, the APC promotes education and professional standards for chaplaincy care. Other notable denomination-specific groups include the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and the Healthcare Chaplaincy Network.

Organization/AssociationContact Information

American Chaplains Association

1116 Cockrell Ct. NW
Kennesaw, GA 30152
(404) 418-8708

International Fellowship of Chaplains

P.O. Box 5488
Birmingham, AL 35203
(989) 753-3211

National Center for Chaplain Development

31878 Del Obispo, Suite 118, PMB 483
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
(866) 949-6223

American Association of Pastoral Counselors

9504A Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22031-2303
(703) 385-6967