Complete Guide to Becoming a Hospital Chaplain [+ Career Outlook]
Developing a life-limiting illness or sustaining a serious injury is traumatic for many people, and can call up questions of existence or meaning. Hospitals and trauma centers are filled with people asking “why?” — why now, why me, why would God do this? This is a time at which, religious or not, many people find solace in talking to a hospital chaplain.
What Is a Hospital Chaplain?
A chaplain is a spiritual professional who provides religious guidance, spiritual or non-sectarian support, and counseling services in secular environments. Chaplains can work across settings and industries, from prisons, to police forces, to the military. A common place to encounter a chaplain is in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or long-term care facility.
Hospital chaplains are on-call to provide non-medical support to patients, their families, and even medical staff. Their support can take the form of leading regular worship services or prayer, administering sacraments, or performing religious rites; it can also manifest as simply being present for some of the most difficult moments of a person’s life. Hospital chaplains address emotional and spiritual concerns surrounding surgery, diagnosis, treatment options, addiction, crisis intervention, rehabilitation, and the end of life.
Chaplains are either employed directly by a hospital or health group, or work on contract through a religious organization, such as a Catholic diocese. Though they may identify with a specific faith or denomination, chaplains are typically called upon to serve people of many different faiths (or none at all). Hospital chaplains are not registered healthcare professionals, but are usually required to have appropriate training to work in a clinical setting.
What Does a Hospital Chaplain Do?
A hospital chaplain’s duties are many and varied, and truly depend on the setting and the day. They may be called to perform a baptism, deliver Holy Communion, or administer Last Rites; or they may be called upon to simply sit with a family while they hear a diagnosis.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of a hospital chaplain’s common responsibilities.
Spiritual & emotional
- Lead worship, administer sacraments, and perform rites (if ordained) for hospitalized patients
- Help patients grapple with spiritual or existential questions
- Provide presurgical and postsurgical counseling
- Provide grief and bereavement counseling
- Counsel doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals
- Help alleviate the fear and stress that can occur in a healthcare setting
- Help improve the patient experience
- Specialize in end-of-life concerns
- Help families process devastating news or deal with crisis situations
- Meet with patients for celebratory occasions, such as the birth of a child or the discharge of a patient completing treatment
- Visit with patients in the emergency room
- Provide crisis intervention
- Counsel survivors of traumatic events or those suffering from mental health crises
- Provide addiction counseling
Educational & administrative
- Explain hospital processes and care to patients
- Help patients navigate hospital rules, procedures, and culture
- Act as a liaison between patients and providers
- Provide notes and non-medical recommendations to the medical staff to support patients’ emotional wellbeing
- Suggest referrals to mental health professionals or other outpatient support services
- Create and manage educational programs and seminars for healthcare workers or the general public
- Help mitigate burnout and other stress factors in staff
- Organize support groups or counseling
Hospital chaplains are usually equipped to work with both individuals and small groups. As non-denominational care providers, chaplains can tailor their approach to meet diverse spiritual, cultural, and age-specific needs.
Since they are often on-call, chaplains must be able to provide flexible schedules comprising nights, weekends, and holidays, in addition to typical daytime work hours.
Becoming a Hospital Chaplain
It’s important to note that hospital chaplains need to be ordained by their church to administer sacraments such as baptism or Holy Communion. Ordination is not necessary to lead worship services or provide counseling, but some hospitals do require their chaplains to be ordained regardless of their duties.
If you’ve identified a calling to become a healthcare chaplain, congratulations! You are entering a gratifying, intellectually challenging, and essential profession. If you are of college age (or have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree), your first few steps will be much the same as in any other career.
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree
Most organizations that employ chaplains require candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent level of education. All religious professionals benefit from a background in theology, ministry, religious studies, philosophy, or even psychology, so a bachelor’s degree in one of those fields is ideal. If you are an older student returning to continue your education in a master’s degree program, your undergraduate studies may not be as important, but this depends entirely upon the program requirements or your career goals.
- Obtain a master’s degree
Many hospitals and health groups prefer chaplain candidates to have a master’s degree or doctoral degree (Ph.D.), as well as pastoral care training. Common advanced degrees for hospital chaplains include:
Within these programs, aspiring chaplains can (and should) specialize in any of these areas, if available:
- Pastoral counseling
- Social, professional, and theological ethics
- Interfaith ministry
- Complete CPE training
Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training is designed specifically for chaplains who work in healthcare settings, but can be helpful for anyone who plans to minister in high-stress environments. In addition to providing training in caregiving and non-denominational spiritual support, CPE helps trainees develop personal boundaries and self-preservation techniques to use in upsetting or unpredictable situations. CPE is frequently available through hospitals and medical groups and is accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE).
Upon completion of, or concurrent with, CPE training, chaplain candidates may be required to complete a supervised residency in a healthcare facility. This can be coordinated through a seminary or theological school.
3b. Additional training
Hospital chaplains are not required to obtain any medical training, but you may wish to take some introductory courses to understand common medical terminology and the healthcare environment. As you encounter patients with certain diseases or conditions, you may also benefit from learning about how those conditions affect the patient’s body and overall wellbeing.
- Earn applicable certifications
Some healthcare institutions require chaplains to hold a certification recognized by an official presiding organization, such as the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) or the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC). Chaplain organizations have different criteria depending on their faith or denomination, so it’s a good idea to start by earning a broad, non-sectarian certification before earning a more specialized one. The certification process usually consists of an interview, a written component, and a residency or practical component. Candidates will be asked to show proof of appropriate education and/or ordination.
- Provide an endorsement, reference, or proof of ordination
Ordination is optional for most hospital chaplains, unless they would like to perform sacraments or their employer requires it. Ordination serves as a professional endorsement, since it is the church’s formal approval to enter the clergy.
Lay men and women of all faiths, including Catholicism, become chaplains without ever seeking ordination. Absent proof of ordination, hospital chaplains may be asked to provide a professional reference or endorsement from a church leader, former employer, internship supervisor, professor, or other applicable source.
- Become a member of a professional chaplain organization
If you have not already done so, become a card-carrying member of one of the organizations mentioned above. Members of groups like the APC or NACC gain access to a vast network of colleagues, professional resources, trainings, and continuing education opportunities.
Important Skills for Hospital & Hospice Chaplains
Since a hospital chaplain’s day can be unpredictable, the most important skill to possess is adaptability. Healthcare chaplains meet people from all cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds, which means they may be speaking to a devout Catholic patient one minute, a Hindu family the next, and a staunch atheist immediately following — all with different health-related concerns and experiences.
Regardless of setting or specialty, hospital and healthcare chaplains should possess the following skills.
- Scriptural interpretation
- Working knowledge of world religions
- Patient evaluation and advocacy
- Strong communication (written and verbal)
- Strong sense of spirituality
- Crisis intervention
- Stress management (both for the self and others)
- Analytical thinking
- Sensitivity to confidentiality
- Active listening
- Self preservation
- Compassion for others
- Ability to display empathy
- Motivational attitude
In our ever-changing and connected world, some chaplains may even need to become skilled in social media, remote pastoral care, or creating digital assets to share with families, patients, and medical staff.
Hospital Chaplain Salary & Career Outlook
Healthcare facilities that employ chaplains include private and public hospitals, health groups, mental health facilities, nursing homes, hospice groups, and rehabilitation centers. There are hospital chaplain jobs available nationwide.
As of 2021, there were over 8,000 clergy professionals employed at general medical and surgical hospitals in the U.S., with another 8,000 employed by home healthcare services. The numbers are much smaller for specialty hospitals and physicians’ offices — around 200 each — which indicates that smaller facilities may employ chaplains on contract as needed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the growth rate for all clergy (including chaplains) is 4% from 2020-2030, about the national average.
The average base salary for full-time chaplains is $62,663, according to 2023 data from Indeed. Of course, this varies depending on employer, years of experience, employment status (full- or part-time), geographical region, range of responsibilities, level of education, etc. Advancement opportunities for hospital chaplains include program coordinator or director, training development leader, or employment at a national chaplaincy association, all of which may come with a higher salary.
Aside from further training, hospital chaplains can grow professionally by mentoring graduate students or those who are new to the profession. Chaplains may also have the opportunity to contribute to research projects examining the relationship between healthcare and spirituality, especially if their employer is connected to a research university or religious order.
In Their Own Words
Dr. Audrey Anaradian’s path to becoming a hospital chaplain was unconventional, but that’s not usual for someone in her profession. From economics professor, to lobbyist, to volunteer pastoral care minister, it was ultimately a shocking medical revelation that brought her to chaplaincy.
“God will use everything. Stuff happens. Tragedies happen. Hardships happen. God will use them. God will use it all. So I just trust that.”
Tips to Prepare for a Career in Healthcare Chaplaincy
So you know you want to be a hospital chaplain — now what? Aside from earning your master’s degree in theological studies or divinity and any applicable certifications, there are some extracurricular items you can check off your list as you explore job options.
Volunteer: Inquire with your local parish, non-profit organizations, or seminaries about any relevant volunteer opportunities. While you may not be able to shadow a chaplain on their rounds for patient confidentiality reasons, you can still learn about the profession by assisting with administrative tasks, staffing chaplain training events, or even volunteering at a local hospital or hospice home to get a feel for the environment you’d be working in.
Find mentors: No matter how robust the curriculum, no educational program can prepare you for all aspects of a hospital chaplaincy. Find a more experienced chaplain who can speak to the difficult or unpredictable parts of the job, and can give advice based on their own career.
Find a community: Similarly to mentorship, a community of fellow spiritual professionals is invaluable for working chaplains. Formal or informal peer networks are a great resource for job openings, moral, spiritual, and emotional support, career advice, or just a listening ear.
Practice self-preservation: Chaplaincy can be difficult in ways that many professions are not. Hospital chaplains deal with death, anger, devastation, profound joy, and existential reckoning, sometimes all within the same day. Just as in any helping profession, you need a strong toolbox of self-preservation techniques to stay level-headed in times of immense stress. Chaplains in secular institutions often encounter patients who identify as atheist or agnostic, so it’s also recommended to have a strong grasp of apologetics, if needed.
Identify resources: Professional chaplain organizations are a well of resources: certification trainings, continuing education, publications, conferences, job listings, webinars, support groups, and more. Graduate school or seminary faculty can provide recommendations specific to healthcare chaplaincy or other specializations.
FAQs About Healthcare Chaplain Careers
Do you need a medical degree to be a hospital chaplain?
No. Chaplains do not need formal medical training or licensure to work in healthcare settings. However, chaplains are still considered part of a patient’s care team, able to give physicians and nurses recommendations that will improve the patient’s emotional wellbeing.
It is recommended that chaplains have some basic medical or healthcare knowledge to understand typical disease progression, the healthcare environment, and common medical terminology. This material may be covered in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training, offered by many hospitals and health groups.
Do chaplains work full-time?
Chaplains can work full-time or part-time, depending on their employer or contract terms. Some chaplains are employed directly by a hospital or health group, while others are contracted through a church or religious organization. A hospital chaplain’s work schedule depends on the size of the facility, patients’ needs, or the nature of care, i.e. emergency rooms, psychiatric facilities, home visits, etc.
How much do chaplains make?
According to 2023 data from Indeed, the average base salary for a full-time chaplain is $62,663. Of course, this varies depending on employer, years of experience, employment status (full- or part-time), geographical region, range of responsibilities, level of education, etc. Advancement opportunities for hospital chaplains include program coordinator or director, training development leader, or employment at a national chaplaincy association, all of which may come with a higher salary.
Start Your Journey to Hospital Chaplaincy with FST
If you feel called to provide spiritual and emotional support to others in times of great need, hospital chaplaincy may be your ideal career. Earning your Master of Divinity or Master of Theological Studies is an excellent step toward entering the field; consider a seminary or theological school whose presiding faith espouses indiscriminate care, mutual respect, and the celebration of all living things.
To learn more about the professional degrees offered at the Franciscan School of Theology, reach out to email@example.com.