Pagan Studies

At times I am angry and other times overflowing with joy. Sometimes I'm confused and sometimes I have absolute clarity. This blog will explore our human condition through an investigation of spiritual pain and how to transcend our pain to find peace.

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The Pagan as Professional Chaplain

Imagine the following scenarios…  

  • You have recently finished your education at Cherry Hill Seminary and you’ve been hired as a healthcare chaplain at a local hospital.  The Director of Pastoral Care turns to you and says, “Well, since you’re the newest chaplain you get to preach at our bi-annual memorial service for all who have passed away at the hospital since our last service.” 
  • You are sitting at an interview for a position as a staff chaplain at a prison.  The warden who is interviewing you says, “I expect my chaplain to be the pastor of the whole prison community.”
  • You get a call in the middle of the night.  A Catholic patient of yours is near death and the family can't find a priest to anoint the patient.  You've been asked by the nurse at their bedside to attend to them. 

Good advice for anyone interested in chaplaincy would be to suspend your sectarianism.  Institutional settings that have chaplains need their chaplains dedicated to interfaith ministry.   Chaplains need to be of service to all of those within their institutional setting. Suspending your sectarianism doesn’t mean sacrificing who you are as a minister, priest, or cleric.  It means being open to diversity and being able to embrace that diversity to be of service to others where you find them.  This means being strong in your own religious conviction.  Your identity as a Chaplain should flow from your theology and that theology should be expansive enough to embrace the needs of others both within and outside of your tradition.  Suspending your sectarianism means your agenda is one of service and compassion; and the person with whom the Chaplain serves sets the agenda. 

Does being a Chaplain mean I’ll have to do things I don’t want to do?  If you have no tolerance for the spiritual beliefs of others then you might be out of your comfort zone as a Chaplain; however, being a Chaplain doesn’t mean being someone you are not.  If someone asks you for something you do not feel comfortable doing, you should decline in such a way that protects their dignity as well as your own.  For example, if you’re a hospital Chaplain and a Christian patient asks for communion, you don’t have to hold Mass in their room but you could politely refer the request to another Chaplain or someone in the community.  It is how you handle the request that is important.  A Chaplain should be able to recognize what is going on inside themselves emotionally and spiritually and act in a professional manner. 

Chaplaincy brings up all of our personal issues and creates its own anxieties.  As a Chaplain you will encounter a lot of people in diverse situations and in providing care to them a lot of your own personal issues will rise to the surface.  A Chaplain needs to be able to regulate their own anxiety and provide a non-anxious presence to others.  Chaplaincy is less about rational knowledge and more about emotional health.  It’s about entering into someone else’s spiritual distress without getting pulled into it and allowing it to take over.  It’s about being able to function in multiple settings as a leader, being the person who is capable of journeying with someone else and helping them in their life journey.  

Do Chaplains reject academic insight and knowledge?  Chaplaincy is about the balance between the intellect and the heart.  It is not an intellectual exercise that one can do simply from reading a book.  Chaplains will commonly find themselves surrounded by complex emotional states in dealing with people in intense grief, anger, denial, etc.  A Chaplain needs to be able to handle these complex emotional states and this requires the Chaplain to have a degree of emotional intelligence while also possessing a thorough knowledge of their own spiritual tradition.  The Chaplain will draw from their own emotional experiences in order to be of service to others and this requires the Chaplain to continually wrestle with their own emotions so they can understand themselves and identify their own emotional states to help identify the emotional states of others.  A Chaplain should be able to go deep into the emotional and spiritual pain of another because they have gone deeply into their own emotional and spiritual pain.  It is difficult attaining this degree of self-awareness strictly through rational study and discourse. 

A Chaplain is someone who reflects theologically and who uses their theological reflection to inform and empower their care for others.  This is what sets Chaplains apart from other caring professions.  A Chaplain is someone who can assess the spiritual pain of another.  Being able to perform an assessment requires the ability to engage in theological reflection.  A Chaplain is self-aware and is able to deeply reflect upon their own pain in order to journey within the distress of others.   

How does a Chaplain do an assessment?  The emotional and spiritual state of a person can get caught up in spiritual pain that takes one or more different forms.  Spiritual pain often surrounds issues of meaning, hope and hopelessness, forgiveness, and intimacy.  A Chaplain will have sufficiently reflected on these areas within their own life so as to be a compassionate caregiver to another.  Theological reflection is the means in which a Chaplain navigates through the pain of another, and also their own pain, and helps to give this pain a context to be better understood.  Pagans have a wealth of resources in which to do theological reflection; this is a strength of Paganism. 

A Chaplain needs to be both a generalist and a specialist.  A Chaplain will often be called upon to do “minister things.”  An institutional Chaplain could be asked to lead an interfaith worship service, or preach at a memorial, lead others in prayer, or facilitate a support group.  A Chaplain needs to have some knowledge of liturgy, preaching, and education in order to function confidently in an institutional setting regardless of their religious tradition.  This is why Chaplains are trained in seminaries and not in schools of psychology or social work; because a Chaplain needs to be a generalist when it comes to “ministry skills.”  A Chaplain, regardless of their faith background, will be asked by those with whom they serve to perform basic “minister stuff,” and the professional Chaplain will be able to comply with these requests. 

Do Chaplains need to embrace concepts foreign to the Pagan community?  Every profession has its own jargon and culture and Chaplaincy is no exception.  Being an institutional Chaplain often means functioning in a multifaith environment.  The terms that are commonly used within Chaplaincy reflect the general norms of Pastoral Care Departments within the various settings that utilize Chaplains; therefore, it is up to the individual Chaplain to translate these norms into their own contextual usage.  For example, when you hear the word “preaching” or “homiletics” you might translate that into “speaking with authority.”  Likewise, when you hear the term “pastoral care” you might prefer to think of the term “spiritual care” instead.  In order to function professionally in a multifaith setting the Chaplain needs to be flexible and willing and able to translate practices into their own theological and spiritual context. 

A Chaplain needs to be a mirror.  A Chaplain is a specialist in pastoral and spiritual care.  When someone is undergoing intense emotions it is often necessary for them to process their emotions in order to achieve emotional balance and harmony.  A Chaplain is not afraid of grief or emotional distress and will enter into another’s emotional pain and help them through reflective listening.  A Chaplain will effectively be a mirror by reflecting back to a person how they are feeling and what is going on within them emotionally and spiritually.  A Chaplain will mirror back to a person their emotional state in a way that helps them process their feelings.  Without effective emotional processing, people get “stuck,” and Chaplains help people avoid getting caught in emotional loops that often feel hopeless.  When the time is right the Chaplain will help them go deeper into their pain in order to help them find a way out. 

So, can Pagans become professional Chaplains?  Absolutely.  Just like people in other faiths, Pagans can and are serving as professional Chaplains.  You will not get rich being a Chaplain but you will find non-tangible rewards for the compassionate service of Chaplaincy.  The best way to pursue an interest in Chaplaincy is to seek out post-collegiate education in Chaplaincy through graduate level theological studies – such as that offered through Cherry Hill Seminary. 

The above essay originally appeared on the Cherry Hill Seminary website.

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Rev. David Oliver Kling is a faculty member at Cherry Hill Seminary and a graduate of Wright State University holding a B.A. degree in Religious Studies and a B.A. degree in Philosophy. He has a Master of Divinity from Methodist Theological School in Ohio with a specialization in Black Church and African Diaspora Studies. While in college he worked as Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Yellow Springs and while in seminary he served the Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship as consulting minister. He recently finished a chaplain residency at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, WV resulting in four units of clinical pastoral education. In addition to teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary he currently works as a hospice chaplain in Northeast Ohio. He is ordained by Sacred Well Congregation and his religious background includes esoteric Christianity, Wicca, Druidry, Gnosticism, and Roman Paganism. His academic interests include Black Church studies, comparative theology, and spiritual/pastoral care.


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Monday, 24 March 2014

    Nice article. When I looked into Chaplaincy at our local hospital, I was rather taken aback to find that the nice resident chaplain there didn't know anything at all about Pagan beliefs - nor is it possible to put Pagan (or even Wiccan) on the hospital intake form for one's preferred faith; those options are not offered.

    In addition, I was given to understand that if I went through a training course at a seminary, I would have to agree to go wherever that seminary wanted to send me afterwards - just like young ministers have to do when assigned to their first churches. Is that universally true? Being a retired man who was in no position to relocate and just wanted to serve in my local community, this was a non-starter. It seemed a shame, really; I have a lot to offer.

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Monday, 24 March 2014

    When I was in my residency program at St. Mary's Medical Center in Huntington, WV I did a didactic on Paganism for my fellow residents. Many of them didn't know much about Paganism but I think there is a growing awareness. Likewise, it is not uncommon for Hospitals to be oblivious to various religious traditions. I don't really think it's a slight against anyone religious tradition. It's because the people writing the software they use in their database are oblivious to the multitude of religious traditions out there.

    Regarding seminary I don't know of any seminary that requires students to be placed in specific locations. I went to a United Methodist seminary and did my "field education" work at a Unitarian Universalist congregation but I know of students who came up with creative areas where they did their "internships," and most seminaries that I am aware of seem to be fairly progressive in these areas. In addition to field education I also did a chaplain residency as I mentioned above but in both of these I had to find them myself -- the school didn't hand me anything (although it would have been nice if they did).

    Have you considered Cherry Hill Seminary?

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    Very useful information, thank you. Cherry Hill sounds like the ideal place to take Pagan training courses, but I will have to wait for a different time in my life. At present my wife and I are esconced in Phoenix, AZ with no prospects of going anywhere until certain medical and financial issues are resolved. I've officiated at over a hundred weddings as a minister of the Universal Life Church, but very few of them have been Pagan. I understand your advice that the person with whom the Chaplain serves sets the agenda; I respect all faiths, and when someone asks what my beliefs are, I speak of my early upbringing in the Methodist Church but then explain that "What is important is what YOU believe and want, not what I do." That said, however, it's getting harder and harder for my wife and me to go into overtly Christian homes to perform nuptials. We feel almost like we're there on false pretexts; but of course we don't say anything to upset our clients just before the ceremony. That would be totally inappropriate. We try to make it clear at the initial interview that we are "Universalists."

  • Sandy Harris
    Sandy Harris Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    A most excellent, thorough, and accurate article, David. Thank you! You speak my mind. I graduated from Cherry Hill Seminary in 2012 and serve as a volunteer Chaplain in a hospital and for the county. Particularly during my Clinical Pastoral Education I learned that my own spiritual path does not matter to the people I am serving. What is import is their path, and it is my job to be able to walk with them for just a little while -- over the rocky parts. My growing favorite metaphor for what we do involves holding an umbrella over their heads and shining a flashlight so they can find their way through the storm.

    Yes, doing "minister stuff" in a public setting is challenging, but it's one Pagans can become good at handling. We learn from festivals and our own pan Pagan events to be at home among unfamiliar gods and rites, and we are reminded often of the most basic rituals of humankind: those of offering and accepting hospitality and the shelter of one's hearth.

    I'm looking forward to seeing you around, fellow Sacred Well priest!
    Khalila RedBird / Sandy Harris
    Sacred Grove Community Circle (SWC)

  • Carol Kirk
    Carol Kirk Tuesday, 08 April 2014

    Great post! Like Sandy, I am working as a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital where I primarily do grief work with families who have just received bad news about their loved ones. It's so important in that setting to offer what the family needs rather than being about me. I am also a student at Cherry Hill Seminary and finishing up my thesis which is all I have to do to graduate.

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Tuesday, 08 April 2014

    Carol... congratulations on your studies! That must have been a lot of hard work. What are you writing your thesis on? I imagine you have a lot of interesting stories about your work in chaplaincy. Have you considered doing CPE?

  • Carol Kirk
    Carol Kirk Tuesday, 08 April 2014

    My thesis got started because I became interested in the rising rates of suicide among combat veterans...which led me to the topic of "moral injury" which seems to contributing to the rising suicide rates. I looked at ritual purification to cleanse warriors of blood guilt in all ancient and even in modern indigenous societies and I am proposing that there may be a place for such rituals in treatment programs for combat veterans. The thesis also discusses the "just war" concept, the interconnectedness with community that has been largely ignored, and the concept of "blood guilt" that has largely disappeared from the Western lexicon.

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Tuesday, 08 April 2014

    Very interesting topic. Who is your thesis advisor? I'd be interested in reading it. I'm a Gulf War veteran myself.

  • Carol Kirk
    Carol Kirk Wednesday, 09 April 2014

    Valerie Cole is my thesis chair, and David Oringderff is also on my committee. I'll be glad to share the thesis with you when it is finalized.

    And I'm a Vietnam vet myself.

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