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Getting a Spiritual Life: Beyond the Chaplain’s Position Description

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D. D., Executive Director
April 01, 2014

World Religion SymbolsI recently received an inquiry from a school (not an Episcopal school, I should add!) regarding an opening the school has for a chaplaincy position. Like many such inquiries, this one was fueled by two assumptions.

The first was what seemed to be a common aversion to the perils of organized religion. The inquiry spoke of how the successful candidate would help the school in “getting a spiritual life, without the trappings of organized religion.” Properly speaking, trappings are about ornamentation or the surface embellishments of something. I think that all of us would agree that a person who finds supreme meaning in the ornamental side of religious belief and practice is not likely going to be very successful as a school chaplain. Young people are likely not to warm up to that style very quickly. As with all of us, they seek authenticity, a person who can withstand their laser-like tests at spotting hypocrisy. That is as true in the classroom or the athletic field as it is in chapel.

Trappings, however, may be interpreted a different way, and I suspect that when we hear about the “trappings of organized religion” we think more of this alternative assumption. Trappings in this case evoke a sense of limitation, restriction, and of being bogged down in something. That is certainly what many people today view organized religion to be: something that traps and inhibits us. Rather than something that can be a springboard to growth and action, which can expand and cultivate our openness to the world, our culture has a real propensity toward viewing it as something that holds us down.

To be sure, there are lots of compelling examples—in our contemporary world as well as throughout history—of how organized religion can indeed “trap.” There are plenty of examples of what we might call “bad religion” out there, be it in the contemporary media or in history books. In a world where choice is clearly the dominant mode of being religious today, who wants, who needs to be limited by bad religion?

The question then becomes what is the alternative. As Brian McLaren points out in his book on Christianity and its interface with a world of religious pluralism, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, the common assumption today seems to be that the only alternative to bad religion is no religion. That, of course, leaves little room for a third possibility: good religion!

I am not assuming that this particular job description presumes this, but if school chaplaincy is viewed through a particular institutional lens that equates all organized religion with bad religion—all organized religion by its nature being a trapping—then that chaplaincy will be handicapped from the start. A school needs to be open to the ways in which even organized religion can energize and authenticate all forms of religious life; otherwise it is as guilty of the limitations and restrictions that can be found in bad religion.

The second assumption may well rest upon the first. The less inclined a school is to be welcoming of forms of organized religion, the greater the pressure on the individual chaplain, school minister, or chapel coordinator to produce the spiritual energy needed for the school on his or her own.

In far too many cases these days, position descriptions for chaplains have a tendency to overemphasize the personal qualities of the individual the school is seeking even as they downplay the role that organized religion can play (this can also be true for many church-related position descriptions, these days!). As schools seek someone who can help the school in “getting a spiritual life,” they tend to gravitate toward personality-based terms such as “dynamic,” “energetic,” and “open” in describing the candidate they seek. More and more, it sounds as if it is up to the personal qualities of the successful candidate alone to make this whole chapel thing work!

We all seek such qualities in whatever people we wish to bring to our school. The problem is that no individual can do the things that are needed to be done in infusing a school with a spiritual sense of itself on his or her own.

At NAES we often caution against viewing the chaplain as the “professional religion person,” let alone being the sole embodiment of the school’s Episcopal identity. While that person is vitally important to the religious mission of the school, and indeed can be pivotal in clarifying and enhancing that mission, it is not something that the chaplain alone does.

What’s more, spirituality—however wide and ill-defined it can be at times—is not something that occurs in a vacuum. It draws upon significant resources—many of them religious—if it is to be anything more than a nice, warm feeling in one’s life. It is hard to divorce spirituality from the organized religions that cultivated the practice of spirituality in the first place. It is influenced by one’s own personal religious history, including any encounters with bad religion, as well as the great fluctuation and interplay that characterizes the contemporary religious landscape in our culture. Moreover—and this may well reflect a bias on the part of we religious folks—we “get it” as much from God as from any particular individual. The manner in which we get a spiritual life is complex and, at root, mysterious. It is not an individual or institutional achievement; the “other dimension” is far richer and interconnected than one might, at first, suspect.

The biggest mistake that schools make when searching for a chaplain, in my estimation, is focusing solely on what the school needs in this individual as well as what it seeks to avoid, while not taking into consideration how the climate of the school and what fears the school might have may stand in the way of that chaplain thriving.

Fortunately, no matter how fearful schools might be of getting someone who embodies “bad religion,” most are interested in attracting someone who has a lively and substantial spiritual life. Many of these deep spiritual lives, however, are rooted in a particular religious tradition. When that tradition is something that person must set aside in his or her practice of chaplaincy, how can such work be at all sustaining?

To my mind, helping a school get a spiritual life begins with calling a chaplain who comes from a particular religious tradition, and that particular tradition—if carried and practiced with honesty and integrity—will help awaken the particular religious and spiritual inclinations of others, including those whose traditions and sentiments are highly different from that of the chaplain. A school should indeed ask a new chaplain to take on a monumental task—after all, we are all doing monumental tasks in schools—but they should not ask that person to undertake that task by denying who they are. They need not only ask, “What type of person do we want (and not want) for this position?” but also, “What is going to be spiritually fulfilling and sustaining in this place for the person who will be doing this work?”

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