The Future of Chaplaincy in a Secularized Society, According to Rev. Dr. Raymond J. Lawrence

Being a chaplain is often associated with a religion, as the concept of chaplaincy has religious roots. The words chaplain and chapel both come from cappella, the Latin word for cloak, referencing St. Martin of Tours’ famous act of cutting his own cloak to give half of it to a beggar who was freezing due to the cold winter weather. Indeed, being a chaplain involves being of service to fellow humans, especially the vulnerable. Chaplains provide pastoral care, such as guidance and emotional or spiritual support, to members of the institution the chaplaincy is attached to.

For virtually the entire history of the Western world, a vast majority of chaplains were ministers of a particular denomination of Christianity. In today’s modern society, however, people’s religious beliefs and affiliations are becoming much more diverse. The proportion of the American population that identifies as Christian has been shrinking for several decades, as more people of Christian heritage begin identifying as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”, and migration patterns bring in adherents of other faiths, such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

According to Rev. Dr. Raymond J. Lawrence, an Episcopal cleric, chaplain, author, and co-founder of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP), the change in the US’ religious demographics needs to be reflected in the profession of being a chaplain, which aims to provide non-discriminatory service to everyone who needs it. As such, he believes that the chaplain of today does not lead prayer nor announce their religion during the course of their work.

The work of CPSP is inspired by the teachings of Anton T. Boisen, who remodeled the philosophical foundations of chaplaincy in the 1920s. Unlike other religious thinkers of the time, he proposed that religious experiences and some forms of mental illness could be interconnected. Rather than evangelizing for a particular religion, Boisen believes that chaplains should adopt the Freudian approach of healing and psychotherapy. CPSP is spearheading a movement to realign chaplaincy towards healing souls, nurturing minds, and understanding the intricate dance between faith and the psyche.

Lawrence shares that changing public perception about the role of the chaplain is a long, uphill, and overdue battle, given how it has been intertwined with religion for many centuries. Oftentimes, religious patients and their companions would request chaplains to say a prayer for them. In this situation, Lawrence shares that one of his colleagues’ answers to this situation would be “I don’t have any prayers today, but I’d like to know how you’re doing,” prompting the patient to open up about their problems.

Furthermore, Lawrence says that the profession of chaplaincy is still dominated by religious ministers who are often seeking to find converts to their religion from the hospital world. Naturally, this creates significant opposition to the goals of CPSP.

However, Lawrence says that the days of religious chaplaincy in hospitals are numbered, as the healthcare situation has changed incredibly in recent decades. In the past, many hospitals were run by religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Methodists. This gave them the ability to appoint chaplains to serve their religions.

Today, virtually all hospitals in the US receive funding from the Federal Government. Due to the Constitutional principle of separation of Church and State, hospitals are prohibited from favoring certain religions over others or they open themselves to being sued or losing government funding. Lawrence argues that, since the average American taxpayer would not be in favor of using tax monies to pay for an Islamic imam or Hindu pandit to spread their religion, then the same should apply to Christianity, as the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

“We want chaplaincy to be detached from religion altogether,” Lawrence says. “It’s not that we are against chaplains having their personal beliefs. In fact, CPSP’s members come from an incredibly diverse collection of religious backgrounds. Instead, we seek to professionalize chaplaincy through the discipline of pastoral care and psychotherapy. If I meet a starving beggar on the street, the right thing to do is offer support, not raise any religious issues. Bringing up religion to starving people is obscene, and the same applies to people suffering in the hospital. Religion has no place in such a public institution.”

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