How to Become a Chaplain

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Jizo Garden, Zenshuji Soto Mission, Downtown Los Angeles

By Rev. Robert “Shuken” McCarthy


What is a Chaplain?
A chaplain is a pastor, priest, or minister who serves in a secular organization as a counselor or spiritual guide. Chaplains can receive their calling at any age and originate from varied backgrounds including those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and through the field of humanities. While some people attain their Bachelor degree with an eye to pursuing a Master of Divinity program, this is often not true for everyone. Many people find the calling of a chaplain later in life around the ages of 35 to 50, and it is not uncommon for younger people or people much older to find this calling. Students in chaplaincy programs are chosen on the content of their character and self-awareness, as opposed to academic pedigree. People approach the path of a chaplain from a multitude of angles, and some people choose chaplaincy as an alternative to social work, a more personal version of ministry, or just a desire to simply help.

First Steps
The first step to enter a chaplaincy program is to attain a Bachelor degree. Students with an undergraduate degree in psychology, social work, and religious studies is preferred but not required. Volunteer experience (and ample amounts of it) within a religious community, be it a church, a monastery, or a youth group, are considered advantageous and helpful. Also, volunteer experience with elder care, health care, and hospice care all give a student a chance to interact with professional chaplains, as well as, gain an understanding of what a chaplain will ultimately be asked to do. Additionally, building rapport is important to help with a future endorser.

In terms of character, a chaplain is highly self-aware and is able to reflect on one’s own motives and directions in life. One should have a strong grounding in their own faith tradition and a deep abiding knowledge of that tradition’s morals, rituals, and overall culture. However, one should be open to other religions and cultures, as the future of chaplaincy in this diverse and ever-growing nation is embedded in interfaith work.

Association of Professional Chaplains
Chaplaincy work is a professional vocation, governed in large part by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). A chaplain who meets the requirements set out by the APC is eligible for board certification. Board certification allows chaplains to work in a wide variety of fields.

To achieve board certification a chaplain must:
1) Possess a Bachelor degree.
2) Possess a Master of Divinity degree from an accredited university/seminary, equivalent to 72 semester credit hours.
3) Complete 4 clinical pastoral education units.
4) Complete 2,000 total hours of work experience.
5) Be endorsed (ordination) from a recognized faith or religious group.
6) Meet the 31 competencies of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

Clinical Pastoral Education
Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is the gold standard of chaplain training and certification. CPE is separate from the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program and must be done on the chaplain’s own time. CPE is considered hands-on training that chaplains must undertake in a professional setting. There are two types of CPE programs; the internship and the residency. The internship,  which most chaplains complete while pursuing their MDiv, is worth 1 unit. The internship can be 10 weeks full-time or 16 weeks part-time.

The residency is worth between 3 and 4 units and requires the chaplain to complete their MDiv program and 1 CPE internship. This is normally completed after graduation; the residency consists of 1 year of full-time work.

Each unit of CPE consists of 300 hours of clinical visitations and 100 hours of classroom work. These visitations with patients consist of one-on-one counseling and helping patients deal with tragedy, trauma, and loss. During this time, it is very important for the chaplain to interact with other staff in the hospital, attend rounds, gather information on patients before visiting, and speak with social workers, doctors, and nurses. These visits are heavily documented and chaplain interns use the knowledge gained in these visits to build a style of chaplaincy that best fits them.

The second part of CPE is done in the classroom. The chaplain is required to take part in group process. Group process is team building and it consists of chaplains presenting conflicts, traumas, and questions from their personal lives while the other chaplains attempt to help counsel the chaplain presenting. The goal of group process is to bring chaplains to greater self-awareness, to give space for reflection, and to emphasize the importance of self-care. There are activities that allow chaplains to explore one another’s faiths and build cohesion between what would otherwise be disparate groups.

More Information
Chaplaincy is a calling and requires students to meet a certain degree of spiritual maturity before considering the work. Chaplaincy is also a professional vocation and requires training beyond what is offered at the graduate level in the form of CPE. For more information on how to become a chaplain contact UWest at 626-571-8811 or at

About the author
Rev. Robert “Shuken” McCarthy is in his final semester of the Master of Divinity program in Buddhist Chaplaincy at the University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He is ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk and is trained to recognize and help people of all faiths. Rev. McCarthy is involved in a wide range of chaplaincy activities but his main work has been in hospitals and prisons. Ultimately, his goal is to become a chaplain in the US Army or the healthcare industry. Rev. McCarthy learned about Buddhism as a history and religious studies major during his undergraduate program at Western Michigan University where he completed his Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Religions. Rev. McCarthy graduates from University of the West this Spring 2018.

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