How to Become a Chaplain: 6 Step Career Guide [+ Salary Info]
In the field of ministry, there may be no more diverse work than that of a chaplain. Chaplains can work in almost any industry: healthcare, law enforcement, education, the military, travel and hospitality, and even corporate offices. For lay men and women who feel called to a spiritual profession outside of the church, chaplaincy provides almost endless opportunities to connect faith to career.
What Is a Chaplain?
Perhaps best described as “ministers in the workplace,” chaplains are spiritual professionals who provide religious guidance and counseling in secular settings. Chaplains do not need to be affiliated with one particular church or religion, and often do not need to be ordained; as long as they have the appropriate spiritual formation, training, and experience, chaplains can become highly valued members of the organizations and communities they serve.
Chaplains can be employed directly by a company or work on contract as a representative of a religious organization. They can be employed by hospitals, police forces, the military, correctional facilities, universities — in short, any secular organization that has regular need for a trusted professional to provide spiritual or emotional support. To that end, chaplains are not limited to specific religious services or guidance; chaplains are equipped to provide non-denominational support and counseling to all, including those who identify as agnostic or atheist.
What Does a Chaplain Do?
Chaplaincy can encompass a wide range of skills and services, but primarily involves bridging the gap between the spiritual and the secular. Common responsibilities include:
- Providing spiritual, emotional, and non-denominational guidance to members of secular workplaces or organizations.
- Leading prayer and interfaith worship services in a variety of non-church settings.
- Performing religious rites such as baptisms, weddings, or funerals (if ordained).
- Leading worship, administering sacraments, and performing rites (if ordained) for those who are unable to attend church services.
- Providing grief counseling.
- Counseling survivors of traumatic events, recovering addicts, victims of crime or violence, and individuals suffering mental health crises.
- Providing spiritual formation and educational instruction to children and adults.
- Coordinating spiritual retreats and trainings.
- Mentoring those who wish to join a particular religion.
- Helping individuals and groups grapple with spiritual or existential questions.
Types of Chaplaincies
According to Indeed.com, the average base salary for a chaplain in the U.S. is $50,575 as of October 2022. Of course, income can vary depending on placement, geographic location, experience, and any additional benefits including a 401(k), parental leave, or relocation assistance.
Those interested in chaplaincy can find opportunities in a broad range of fields.
Chaplains can work in hospitals, mental health facilities, rehabilitation centers, long-term care homes, and any number of other care settings. They provide on-call spiritual counseling and support for patients and their families pertaining to diagnosis, surgery, traumatic injuries or events, death, and crisis intervention. Hospital chaplains do not need to be registered healthcare professionals, but should have appropriate clinical support training.
Chaplains who work in correctional facilities lead worship services, prayer groups, and provide spiritual instruction, guidance, counseling, and general support for incarcerated individuals.
Police departments need on-call chaplains who can comfort anxious or grieving family members on active crime scenes and provide counseling services to police officers. While they do not need to be certified officers, police chaplains often need to complete crisis response training.
Schools and universities
School or campus chaplains work with students and faculty at the elementary, high school, or college level. Duties can range from individual counseling to teaching religious education courses to leading worship services. Chaplains are more often placed at religious grade schools (rather than secular), though many secular colleges and universities employ campus chaplains.
Military chaplains are commissioned officers in the U.S. military, and, though they cannot hold command, can achieve the rank of major general or rear admiral. They lead worship services, provide spiritual support to troops, administer sacraments, perform rites, and advise commanding officers and other personnel on religious and moral matters. The U.S. military prefers chaplains to be ordained.
Many professional sports teams travel with their own team chaplain. A sports chaplain provides spiritual support on the road, leading worship services and prayer in between training and games.
The list goes on — other types of chaplaincies include veterinary, corporate, disaster relief, travel and hospitality, environmental, media, or governmental.
Are Chaplains Ordained?
Chaplains do not need to be ordained to administer counseling or lead worship services. However, they do need to be ordained to perform religious sacraments such as the Eucharist or baptism.
Routes to chaplaincy vary. Depending on the setting, chaplains can either be lay people currently employed by an organization who have completed the appropriate theological and ministerial training; or they may be ordained individuals who are recruited by an organization and appointed to chaplaincy.
Many chaplains choose to wear plain clothes or the uniform of their organization, though they occasionally will wear vestments for more formal attire for public-facing occasions. If a chaplain is ordained in the Christian faith, especially if they are Catholic or mainline Protestant, they may sometimes wear a white collar.
How to Become a Chaplain
While there are many paths to chaplaincy, many organizations require candidates to have specific educational or spiritual preparation and training.
- Talk to a trusted advisor.
If you’re new to the possibility of chaplaincy, talk to your local pastor or contact a seminary or theological school to hear their recommendations for education and training.
- Earn a Bachelor’s degree.
If you have yet to choose or complete an undergraduate program, consider a concentration in religious studies, theology, ministry, counseling, or philosophy. These subjects will provide an ideal foundation for the types of work chaplains are called to do.
If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree in any of these fields, it is still possible to become a chaplain — as long as you complete additional training. Also consider volunteering in the kind of organization you’d like to serve, such as a hospital, police department, or rehabilitation program.
- Earn a Master’s degree.
While most, if not all, organizations that employ chaplains require candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree; many prefer candidates with a master’s or doctoral degree. Common advanced degrees for chaplains are a Master of Divinity (MDiv), Master of Theological Studies (MTS), or a Master of Arts in theology or ministry.
If chaplaincy is a career goal, graduate students should consider specializing in pastoral counseling, social, professional, and theological ethics, interfaith ministry, or other applicable areas.
- Determine if you need CPE training or a residency.
Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training is designed specifically for chaplains who may work in a medical or healthcare setting, and is often provided by hospitals and medical groups. CPE trains chaplains not only in interfaith and non-denominational spiritual support, but also as caregivers in a clinical (and sometimes unpredictable or upsetting) environment. Hospitals and healthcare organizations frequently require chaplaincy candidates to complete CPE training accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). Additionally, candidates may need to complete a supervised residency, which can be coordinated through a seminary or theological school (like the Franciscan School of Theology).
- Become ordained (if needed or desired).
Ordination — the process of formal approval to enter the clergy — is optional for chaplains of many faiths, especially if they do not intend to administer sacraments or perform rites. However, some institutions (like the U.S. military) do require chaplains to be ordained before serving.
It is not always necessary for Catholic and other Christian chaplains in secular workplaces to become ordained. Many lay men and women become chaplains without ever seeking ordination.
- Earn a chaplaincy certification.
Some institutions require chaplains to earn a certification recognized by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). Chaplain organizations have differing criteria for certification depending on their particular faith or denomination, so it’s best to earn a broadly recognized certification first. The process requires an interview and a written component, as well as the candidate’s ability to produce proof of education or ordination (if applicable).
- Become a member of a professional chaplain organization.
In addition to membership in a large organization like the ACP, aspiring chaplains should consider joining professional networks that align with their faith practice, such as the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC).
Key Skills for Chaplains
Wherever they are employed, chaplains need to possess maturity, patience, self-preservation, and the ability to grow. Though their duties may vary widely across professional settings, all good chaplains need to be open, compassionate, adaptable, and able to remain composed during stressful or upsetting situations.
Practical skills chaplains need to possess include:
- Strong communication (written and verbal)
- Active listening
- Analytical thinking
- Public speaking
- Teaching skills
- Crisis intervention
- Stress management (both for the self and others)
- Scriptural interpretation
- Working knowledge of world religions
While many chaplains naturally possess these attributes, it’s important to cultivate these “softer” interpersonal skills:
- Compassion for others
- Ability to display empathy
- Motivational attitude
- Sensitivity to confidentiality
Above all, chaplains should possess a strong sense of spirituality, which will support many of the attributes listed above. A close relationship to one’s faith not only helps in ministering to others, but provides an anchor in times of great stress.
Benefits of a Becoming a Chaplain
Chaplaincy is not for everyone — depending on the placement, the work can be stressful, challenging, and potentially dangerous. But the benefits of becoming a chaplain far outweigh the risks.
Perpetual learning opportunities. Chaplains encounter people from all walks of life, which means that they will likely meet people of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Chaplaincy work provides invaluable opportunities to learn about life experiences that are vastly different from one’s own.
Diverse work environment. Since many chaplains are adjacent to service professions, their work environments are often multiracial, multicultural, and representative of a wide range of socioeconomic statuses.
Job security. Hospitals, prisons, police forces, and the military will always need chaplains, so chaplains can usually count on long-term employment.
Competitive benefits. Chaplains are usually entitled to the same workplace benefits as healthcare professionals, military personnel, and government employees, depending on where they work.
The chance to improve the lives of others. Most importantly, chaplaincy work can have a profound effect on people in some of their darkest moments. While some of the work can be difficult, the opportunity to help people in times of need is extremely gratifying — a major reason why people enter chaplaincy in the first place.
“I believe God placed in my heart in this sequential calling, to be a pastoral care minister [and chaplain] full time. And it was made possible because of everything everyone gave along the way. God will use everything. Stuff happens. Tragedies happen. Hardships happen. God will use them. God will use it all. So I just trust that.”Audrey Anaradian, Ph.D.
Pastoral Care Minister
CHOC Children’s Hospital, Orange, CA
FST Alum, M.Div., 2019
Tips to Prepare for a Career in Chaplaincy
If you follow the recommended educational path described above, you will be well on your way to laying the foundation for a career in chaplaincy. There are some additional (and less straightforward) preparations to make as you explore placements.
Volunteer. Outside of academics, volunteer your time in the types of organizations that interest you. Ask your local police station if they offer internships or apprenticeships, or see if your local pastor would be willing to let you shadow them on hospital calls. When choosing field placements in your undergraduate or graduate program, choose opportunities that align with your post-graduate professional interests.
Identify resources. Chaplains bear witness to death, disease, trauma, conflict, and people in crisis, not to mention difficult conversations about faith and purpose. Seeking spiritual counsel and mental health resources for oneself is crucial to maintaining overall wellbeing in and outside the workplace. At the very least, it’s important to have a strong emotional and spiritual support system.
Practice self-preservation. When chaplains have access to mental health and spiritual resources, they are well equipped with tools to protect themselves on the job. Personal boundaries, as well as the ability to separate one’s own feelings from the work, can help chaplains put others before themselves while protecting their own heads and hearts.
FAQs About Chaplaincy
What jobs are similar to a chaplain?
Since chaplaincy encompasses such a wide range of responsibilities, it can sometimes appear very similar to other helping professions like social work, mental health counseling, or hospice care. Many people in secular professions also combine chaplaincy with their primary job, so that police officers, nurses, professors, and even airline pilots can also be chaplains.
What life challenges do chaplains handle?
Depending on their placement, chaplains can encounter death, disease, trauma, conflict, and violence in their line of work. They also respond to people grappling with overwhelming existential questions about faith and purpose, and must keep an open mind and heart during stressful or challenging conversations. It is crucial that chaplains have access to tools and resources to help them maintain their own mental and spiritual wellbeing in and outside of work.
Where do chaplains work?
Chaplains can work in almost any secular profession or setting, including hospitals, prisons, police departments, schools, nursing homes, or military bases. A chaplain’s primary function is to minister and provide spiritual guidance outside of a church setting, so any secular organization that has need of their support can hire a chaplain.
Do I need to be ordained to become a chaplain?
Ordination requirements vary by employer, but chaplaincy is a common profession for lay men and women who have not been ordained. Some chaplains go their entire careers without pursuing ordination.
What is the age requirement for becoming a chaplain?
While there is technically no age restriction on chaplaincy, chaplains are expected to have completed at least an undergraduate degree, and preferably a master’s degree. Candidates are also asked to complete additional training and field placements or residencies before they are eligible for certification and employment.
Can I become a chaplain without a degree?
There are chaplaincy opportunities available for those without advanced degrees, but appropriate training and formation is necessary for chaplains to be most successful. A Master of Divinity (MDiv) or similar degree will provide the proper ministry, counseling, and leadership training that chaplains need in any field.
Is there such a thing as a volunteer chaplain?
Yes. Chaplains can be full-time, part-time, volunteer, or receive a stipend as part of a residency program. However, volunteer positions may still require chaplains to have the appropriate training and certifications.
Answer Your Call to Chaplaincy with an Advanced Degree at FST
If you feel called to chaplaincy work, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) program provides the ideal preparation for ministering to diverse populations. At the Franciscan School of Theology (FST), we place emphasis on meeting the spiritual needs of people from all backgrounds, ensuring that our students appreciate everyone’s lived experience and can meet people wherever they are, however they come. Field work is a fundamental aspect of the MDiv program, and students are encouraged to choose placements that align with their spiritual and professional goals.
Explore the opportunities at FST, and put your heart of service to work in the world.