How to Become a Chaplain

by Jeney Park-Hearn, PhD

What is a Chaplain, and What Do They Do?

On September 11, 2001, the world was stunned by images of the burning World Trade Center towers in New York City. While crowds of dazed and confused people were leaving the city, heroic first responders headed in the opposite direction, toward the chaos and devastation, because they knew people needed their help.

The vital work of chaplains takes place in a variety of settings, including hospitals, the military, corporations, prisons, colleges, law enforcement, and sports teams, to name a few.

In a similar way, chaplains move toward crisis, pain and conflict to extend spiritual care to suffering individuals and communities. Educated and trained chaplains provide spiritual care by helping people navigate overwhelming circumstances.

They walk with people struggling to find meaning and hope – people whose beliefs, core values, and worldview are being tested to the breaking point. The resolve and commitment of chaplains to this work come from deeply held beliefs and love for people.

The history of the Christian church is rich with stories of people moved by an intimate and soulful call from God to enter into difficult situations. Chaplains follow in their tradition and footsteps, embodying mercy and kindness for those who desperately need it.

The vital work of chaplains takes place in a variety of settings, including hospitals, the military, corporations, prisons, colleges, law enforcement, and sports teams, to name a few.

Chaplaincy Skills

Chaplaincy is first and foremost a ministry of presence. It calls for compassion, deep listening, crisis management, emotional health, and an attunement to what matters most to people in crisis. Chaplains integrate care skills, spiritual sensibilities, and theological reflection into their response. Even as chaplains are faced with their own anxiety in the face of suffering, they respond with steadiness and a resolve to accompany others through the storm.

A chaplain is talking with a military personnel

Because they have grappled with their personal theologies/worldviews and who they are as fellow humans, chaplains lean into challenging spaces with authenticity and a capacity to wrestle with brave questions and doubts about God’s goodness, faithfulness and wisdom.

How Do You Become a Chaplain?

Chaplaincy is demanding, and for this reason, there are specific requirements and processes to ensure skill and professional capability. A practical approach to learning what steps you’ll need to complete to become a chaplain is to start by identifying the specific type of chaplaincy you're interested in. This helps narrow down the pathways to explore and locate organizations that oversee chaplaincy-specific requirements.

Depending on the type of chaplaincy and requirements of the certifying organization you select, the process to become a chaplain can take one to six years. Keep in mind the demands of this ministry, and choose a comprehensive and well-rounded program of study and training that will make sure you are well-prepared.

Chaplaincy requirements may include:

Portland Seminary’s chaplaincy specialization meets the academic coursework requirement for certification with the Board of Chaplaincy Certification. Additionally, our faculty are here to help chaplaincy students navigate what can feel like an intimidating process to fulfill certification requirements.

Education and Certification

Although many organizations offer education and certification for chaplains, it’s critical to do careful research before making a decision. The demands of spiritual care are intense. Proper training in areas like theology, philosophy and behavioral sciences equips chaplains to respond effectively to people's suffering in the moment.

Proper training in areas like theology, philosophy and behavioral sciences equips chaplains to respond effectively to people's suffering in the moment.

Regardless of the number of requirements, it's important to make sure that certifying organizations maintain high standards for the education (whether online or in-person) and/or life experiences they expect from chaplains seeking certification. But what exactly is certification?

Think about when you last looked for a new therapist or doctor. Did you check their qualifications on their website? Were you interested in their training and if they were licensed by a trusted organization? What convinced you to book an appointment? The same considerations apply to chaplains.

Certification indicates that a chaplain has been evaluated and approved by professionals in a process that ensures the quality of chaplains and their spiritual care. While it’s possible to become a chaplain without certification, consider again the demanding nature of the role and the scope of knowledge required to accompany people in crisis.

Chaplaincy certification provides the assurance that a chaplain has studied, practiced, been supervised, and has proven effective as a spiritual care provider. Keep in mind, however, that in the sea of certifying organizations, it's vital to thoroughly investigate their processes and standards.

The following organizations provide helpful information about chaplaincy and certification:

How Much Do Chaplains Earn?

In 2021, the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab sent a survey to approximately 10,000 people on their mailing list and those of various chaplaincy associations, asking anyone who considered themselves a chaplain in the U.S. to respond.

Of the 1,002 people who responded to the survey:

  • 77.9% reported that they had a paid position as a chaplain
  • 4.6% reported that they volunteered as a chaplain
  • 17.5% did not answer

The largest proportion of chaplains who were paid reported earning an annual income of $50,001 to $60,000 (18.4%, n=144). The second most common income range was $25,001 to $50,000, which was close behind at 17.7% (n=138).

9.6% of paid chaplains reported earning less than or equal to $25,000 per year, and 8.1% reported earning more than $100,000 per year.

For more insights, check out their full report, Becoming a Chaplain: Costs and Compensation.

Clinical Training for Chaplains

Needless to say, the training and education of chaplains must match the rigor of the complex and intense circumstances they have to respond to. Clinical training provides on-site opportunities to be with individuals who are hard-pressed to cope with their circumstances and maintain a functioning worldview.

Three people talking in a healthcare facility

Clinical pastoral education (CPE) at an accredited site offers an excellent opportunity to develop these competencies through hands-on, supervised experience in a learning community. While CPE isn't always mandatory to become a chaplain, some certification bodies do require it, and this experience in the field can be invaluable.

For instance, someone pursuing chaplaincy might complete their clinical pastoral education in a hospital where direct interactions with real people in difficult situations – patients, their loved ones, and medical staff – can provide insights into spirituality and the core beliefs people hold.

For more information about Clinical Pastoral Education, please visit the website for the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education.

Become a Chaplain Online at Portland Seminary

Portland Seminary offers a hybrid-online Master of Divinity degree with a chaplaincy specialization. Graduates of this academic and personally formative program meet all educational requirements to become a certified chaplain with the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc.

Portland Seminary’s chaplaincy specialization includes gatherings to hear from chaplains in the field, discussions of theology through a chaplain’s lens, and explorations of relevant topics such as spirituality, ethics, trauma, identity and vocation. Administrators and faculty provide support in navigating the process to become a certified chaplain, so that students can focus on becoming who God has called them to be.

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