Ever heard it said, “There are no politics in the chaplaincy profession,” Yeah right! I would like to believe that politics is not a constituent characteristic of the chaplaincy profession. However, I submit to you that such is a fantasy that betrays a lack of understanding, as well as a propensity to remain within the infantilized protection of a quintessential inner circle of the herd. Truth be told, there are a many political forces and interests that push and pull on the chaplaincy profession.
Politics, no matter the context, is the practice of influencing others to gain and maintain power and influence in a government or an institution. The chaplaincy, as a profession, is no exception to the innate human propensity to seek to protect and secure its own professional niche within an ever growing politicized society with its many competing social constructs.
Although ordinarily thought of in terms of belonging to the clergy caste, a chaplain is in fact not only of the clergy but more frequently a non-clergy member that exercises the role and function of the chaplaincy. This is somewhat confusing to the outsider.
To the outsider the chaplain is a minister of some particular faith tradition. In some faith traditions a chaplain is exclusively a role and title reserved for the official clergy. In other faith traditions a non-clergy is able to exercise both the role and function of the chaplain. For instance, it was the traditional expectation in Lutheran clergy circles that before considering to enter a chaplaincy the cleric required a minimum of 3 years of prior experience as a pastor of a congregation. It was thought that such congregational experience would be foundational to the future chaplain`s pastoral identity, work, and practice as a chaplain representing the faith community.
There are instances where soon after completing the standard four years of graduate theological program in a Lutheran seminary that a select candidate could be placed into the chaplaincy instead of the parish. On its face and without too much difficulty, the preferential nature of such an appointment in light of the minimal prior congregational work expected of all other clergy, clearly betrays that such appointments demonstrate a politicized reality.
Unlike the Lutherans with whom I served many years, other faith groups can commission and ordain a minister to serve exclusively within the chaplaincy without any graduate theological education. There are even chaplaincy associations whose exclusive function and raison d’être is to train and ordain protestant ministers as chaplains. In and of itself, this manifests that there is indeed a significant politicized reality that gives shape to such distinctions among and within faith traditions.
Anecdotally, the training and employment of chaplains remains among the silently politicized professions in the United States. This is evident as one seeks training for the chaplaincy. As important as it is to have some notion about the social stratification and design regarding where chaplains actually serve and employed in our society, it is as important to know where and what kind of training will be necessary to equip others for this highly politicized profession.
When I was a college student in the mid-1980`s and already serving as a volunteer chaplain assisting local Lutheran pastors make hospital visits of sick, I applied to the local hospital`s clinical pastoral education program thinking that the training would be of help in preparing me to better serve. To my surprise I was refused a placement in the program because the CPE supervisor wished applicants to have a minimum of a bachelors degree to qualify. Although I did have an associates degree, sadly I was rejected from participating. I learned then and there that the very training for chaplaincy itself was a politicized reality and that I did not at the time possess the requisite tools. Suffice it to say that the CPE supervisor did also say that I could apply again when I had a bachelors degree. I did not apply for a CPE program until it was required of me to do so as an M.Div. student nearly ten years later.
The CPE program that I applied to was listed in the ACPE booklet provided to all seminary students at my school. Both the seminary field education director and the CPE supervisor were supervisory faculty members of the ACPE, Inc. Upon acceptance into the summer intensive CPE program in 1994 in NYC, I learned that the CPE unit was governed by the Standards of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, Inc. Apparently, this detail must have either been overlooked by the field education director and I was permitted to attend the CPSP CPE program in fulfillment of my CPE unit required by the seminary. As I look back, it is plausable that the field education director might have engaged in some political considerations that allowed for me to complete a unit of CPE at an ACPE accredited center with an ACPE supervisor that also offered CPE education governed by the Standards of CPSP. The fact that the CPE unit governed by the Standards of CPSP was accepted for graduate level credit at the seminary also makes for an interesting discussion as to whether it matters or not that CPE was from an accredited ACPE or CPSP training center. Upon review by the faculty, the CPE unit that I completed was accepted by the seminary to meet the expected requirements.
I was very encouraged by my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education training. I was encouraged not because I was learning theology but because there was something so real and palpable about encountering and learning how to journey with other human beings that now found themselves in the most vulnerable and often life and death situation of their lives. I think I did more learning and introspection in one unit of CPE than I did in three years of seminary. Don`t get me wrong, I value seminary training and I ranked among the top five percent in my seminary class. I am thankful for my seminary education. It was the seminary curriculum after all that led me to my first CPE unit.
Here is where the politics continue. Upon graduation from seminary I wished to be assigned to a chaplaincy in addition to a congregation. I was provided the expected and necessary guidance by the denominational leaders that required that I obtain a denominational endorsement from the specialized ministries office at headquarters. To my surprise I was informed that I would require having 4 units of CPE training completed at an ACPE, Inc. program if I wished to come up for review and endorsement in chaplaincy. This prompted me to investigate who the specialized ministry staff were and to learn something about their particular chaplaincy affiliations. Lo and behold, I learned that the key staff at the specialized ministries office were supervisory faculty members of the ACPE, Inc. Might this suggest that although shrouded in Lutheran garments the ACPE, Inc. had member ambassadors promoting the exclusive recognition of their own CPE units as the only acceptable chaplaincy training for endorsement within a Lutheran denomination? The endorsement process for Lutherans was indeed a politicized process. It can appear to the outsider that the ACPE, Inc. , as a non-Lutheran entity, not only demonstrates its political power and the political reach it wields through its representative Lutheran members; it also might suggest that as an organization some of its members are religiously devoted to shaping their own church polity to remain in conformity to the ACPE, Inc. political agenda of securing and maintaining a veto power for CPE training programs it will accept and CPE training it will reject. Such political behavior might also be explained by the endorsement leaders themselves seeking to consolidate and maintain their own place as endorsers within the denomination, to create and promote church polity that requires Lutheran members with ACPE affiliation to call the shots for the specialized ministries within the denomination at the exclusion of all others.
This is not to suggest that there is any conspiracy out there being orchestrated by ACPE, Inc. Rather it appears part of normal political process within faith groups and their representative members who hold varied political affiliations and views to allow those particular interests to also shape their church polity even at the expense of a fairness, inclusion, or neutral principle.
However, there remain real and undisclosed political forces at work in the chaplaincy profession that should not be ignored or underestimated. This is all the more true if you belong to a new organization like CPSP. I can imagine the murmuring saying: “But CPSP is not new.” To some degree CPSP is not new and to a greater degree it is a new player on the block, a unique organization that yearns to remain continually renewing itself as a prophetic community somewhat still at the margins. As CPSP members, we have witnessed the growing pains of CPSP`s ongoing transformation.
There is a great virtue in CPSP. It is an organization that has made a space for many, especially minorities and persons of color, to enter and remain sustained in the chaplaincy and pastoral counseling professions. It should not be overlooked that wherever new professional organizations are formed and a shift occurs in the status quo, political forces and traditional interests often seek to push back to maintain the previously existing political equilibrium that insured their dominance within the profession.
CPSP has also created a space for ACPE supervisors who experienced professional angst and were not entirely satisfied with the direction of their ACPE colleagues over 25 years ago. Some of them are the founders of CPSP and they remain our connection to the origins of the clinical pastoral education movement in this country, and we remain as the legacy of their arduous journey to speak the truth to power. There is much politics in that too and there will always be political consequences that come with change in any profession and daring to speak the truth to power in a silently politicized profession.
Belen Gonzalez y Perez, CPSP Diplomate