Small group exercise at Chaplaincy Lab
By Michael Skaggs

In December 2019, the Fetzer Institute hosted a small meeting for the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab to talk about the current and future state of spiritual care in a variety of settings. Together, we wanted to explore how we might move into a future defined by greater access to the best possible spiritual care, recognizing that all have a right to care for their human spirit no matter who or where they are. Over the course of the three days we were together, we focused on a few key elements of today’s spiritual / religious landscape and how these elements might inform the future of chaplaincy.

American religious life, along with many of the ways people find and create meaning, is changing. In many cases it will continue to do so, largely away from traditional churches, mosques, and synagogues and into newer forms. Many of the ideas coming from traditional institutions are powerful in and of themselves, but the “delivery systems” are out of date in today’s spiritual and religious ecology.

Chaplains, on the other hand, have always maintained their own “delivery system.” They meet people where they are, as they are, and chaplains journey with them through different points in their lives. The Lab conducted a survey in March 2019 which found that 20% of Americans had had contact with a chaplain in the last two years. If one in five Americans have come across a chaplain, that tells us that chaplains are uniquely positioned to be the voices and vessels of love and compassion, quietly connecting with more people across the country than we might think.

We suspect that one in five number is only going to grow, and as we think about the work of chaplains, we must start with demand. And if we can identify demand, we have to figure out how to supply it. Where are the skills of deep listening, presence, community bridging, improvisational ritual, and others needed in today’s world? These vital tools of chaplaincy are needed in so many places right now: by socially isolated elders and others; by individuals facing the end of their lives and those journeying with them; among individuals detained in immigration facilities or correctional institutions without access to spiritual care; and in so many other places. The need for chaplains is not shrinking, so how can we better meet that need?

Finally, a word on words. Even the term chaplain carries more meaning than its dictionary definition. It works for some people and institutions, opening up opportunities in places like the military, healthcare, and corrections that have long had chaplains and understand who they are and what they do. In other settings–especially those populated by a less traditionally religious demographic–the language of chaplaincy feels old-fashioned and shuts down possibilities rather than creating them. But we have to acknowledge the limits of what we can do, realizing that we likely will never find a perfect vocabulary for this crucial work. Instead, we must be able to code switch, describing this work in different ways to different audiences. The best chaplains among us know this actually isn’t a new idea, as they had do it every day in their work providing what Winnifred Sullivan (professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University) has called a “ministry of presence.”

We are thrilled to partner with the Fetzer Institute in this work, which is needed now more than ever. Equally rewarding is the deep alignment of the Lab’s mission and the future that the Institute envisions through its commitment to “transformed communities and societies in which all people can flourish.” No one can flourish without adequate attention to and care of their inmost spirit, regardless of the spiritual tradition they come from (including none at all). The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab shares that commitment, seeing a next generation of spiritual care leaders, ideas, and movements as vital components of building those communities. We are excited to be on this journey with Fetzer and to collaborate in strengthening the spiritual foundation for a loving world through the sustaining work of chaplains. Everyone deserves spiritual care, no matter who or where they are. It is the Lab’s vision that in the not-so-distant future, the profession can help ensure that all who want it receive that care and come away the better for it.

Michael Skaggs is executive director of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.