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The Well-being of Chaplains in Episcopal Schools

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D.
March 2012

The NAES staff has assessed the results of the first-ever survey of Episcopal school chaplains, an initiative undertaken in 2010 in collaboration with the Church Pension Group.

Over the years, a number of surveys have focused on the levels of compensation, satisfaction, and wellness of parish clergy. This most recent survey, however, focused exclusively on those doing ministry in Episcopal schools. It provides important and instructive information about how our school chaplains view their work, their satisfaction with family and personal lives, their relationships with church officials and colleagues in the ministry, and their current spiritual lives.

The Church Pension Group compiled the responses of 94 Episcopal school chaplains, both ordained and lay, in boarding and day schools, and compared the results with two important surveys of parish rectors: the 2001 Pulpit and Pew Survey and the 2010 Called to Serve Survey. The results of the 2010 survey of school chaplains, in tandem with the results of those of parish rectors, provide us with a valuable perspective on the differences and similarities between these two respective callings.

NAES is grateful to Dr. Matthew J. Price, Director of Analytical Research for the Church Pension Fund, and his staff, for compiling and analyzing the data from this survey, and for their skill in identifying some of the more nuanced ways that clergy in schools and parishes view their ministry.

Salient Findings

The full results of this survey will be disseminated in the upcoming months. Here are some of the salient findings:

The backgrounds and experiences of chaplains are largely similar to those of parish rectors. For example, the percentage of chaplains who were “cradle Episcopalians” is quite similar to those who are parish rectors (45-46%), and roughly 80% of both chaplains and parish rectors were attending church when they were 16 years of age. Both express a high level of satisfaction with professional development opportunities, and both have high rates of attendance at diocesan gatherings (80-82%). Regarding the latter similarity, apparently the assumption that being in a school takes one away from the business of the diocese is not true!

Compensation levels among rectors and school chaplains show both commonality and difference. The average compensation in 2010 for male rectors, inclusive of salary and housing, not benefits, was only 4% higher than for male chaplains. The average compensation for female chaplains was 4% higher than for female rectors. While female chaplains, on the average, make 5% less than their male counterparts, the good news is that there is less disparity in compensation between male and female chaplains than there is between male and female rectors. Boarding school chaplains report a higher level of satisfaction with their housing and living arrangements than do day school chaplains.

School chaplains report a higher level of satisfaction with family and personal lives than do rectors. Across the board, a higher percentage of chaplains report that their ministry has had a positive impact on family life than those who serve in parishes. Over half of male and female chaplains report that they are able to balance the needs of work and family, “very well,” while another substantial percentage report that they are “somewhat able” to balance work and family (45% for male chaplains, 41% for female chaplains). This is a striking difference from the 2010 Pulpit and Pew Survey of rectors, where 51% of male rectors and 55% of female rectors reported that work in a parish did not permit sufficient time with their children.

School chaplains report lower levels of satisfaction in their work and in their perceptions that their ministries make a difference in their ministry settings. While 60% of rectors report high levels of satisfaction with their work, only 47% of chaplains report high levels of satisfaction. There are also higher levels of dissatisfaction with their work among school chaplains than among parish rectors. Finally, parish rectors report more positive relationships with diocesan officials and clergy colleagues (42% for diocesan officials, 40% with clergy colleagues) than do school chaplains (38% for diocesan officials, 33% for clergy colleagues).

There is a striking link between the level of satisfaction school chaplains feel in their work and the quality of their relationship with school leaders. Among male school chaplains, for example, 75% of those who reported some level of dissatisfaction with their work also reported dissatisfaction with the relationship with school leaders. Behind these findings may loom an essential difference between the ministry of a rector and the ministry of a chaplain: the rector is at the top of his or her congregational hierarchy, while a chaplain reports to someone else (sometimes a number of people!) and is regarded as a member of a “team.” Nonetheless, the statistics bear out what NAES has learned anecdotally over the years: the positive or negative understanding of the relationship a chaplain has with school leaders is a significant reason for either staying in that position or leaving it. Chaplains find it difficult to maintain a higher level of satisfaction with their work if that relationship is not a positive or meaningful one.


What are some of the important “takeaways” from this data? There are obviously many, but I would like to focus on four.

One of the appeals of school ministry is its promise of more personal and/or family time. This is not to imply that the work is any less demanding (indeed, some would say it is more demanding work), but there appears to be something about the culture of working in a school that values family and personal time more than in a parish. Perhaps it has to do with long vacation periods, but I would posit a different interpretation: on the whole, the boundaries between work and personal life are much clearer and more respected in school ministry than in the parish. When school leaders are in serious discussion with candidates for a school chaplaincy position, they would do well to point out this favorable climate for the enjoyment of time beyond the intense work. It is important to note that this avenue of ministry may well attract men and women who place a high value on a better personal-professional balance, given that 68% of female school chaplains and 65% of male school chaplains did not find that their previous experience in parish ministry was a hindrance to good parenting.

The results of the survey point to some critical factors and trends in the nature of the head-chaplain relationship. Over the years, NAES has written extensively about the dynamics of the head-chaplain relationship. Traditionally, this has been viewed as a partnership of two people who have the unique perspective of seeing the “whole school.” Some observers have pointed to the fact that the school chaplain is one of the few people in the institution with whom a school head can be honest and frank. When those factors are not at work in the chaplain-head relationship, it can obviously produce level of dissatisfaction.

At the same time, we at NAES are seeing real changes in the chaplain-head relationship. The way in which that professional bond has been described in previous years seems to be giving way to a greater gap between the two. Perhaps this has to do with the increasingly external role the head has to play, leaving less time to deal with life inside the school community, a sphere of continued importance to the chaplain. In many cases the chaplain no longer reports directly to the head of school, while—for many prudent professional reasons—more heads of school are reluctant to confide in any of those who report directly to them. It may also be the case that more of our school heads come from different religious backgrounds or affiliations than our chaplains.

Whatever the case may be, there continues to be a clear link between the satisfaction of chaplains with their ministry in a school setting and their relationship with school leadership, all at a time when the nature of that relationship, across the board, is changing. This may behoove school leaders to be very clear about what they expect of their chaplains in terms of a working relationship, and what chaplains should expect in return, when interviewing candidates for these positions.

It is much more difficult for a school chaplain to see the impact of his or her work than it is for a parish rector.The nature of a school community where only a small percentage of the students in the school are Episcopalian may well mean that it will take longer for a chaplain to see the impact of his or her ministry than may be the case in a parish where there are more like-minded people. Here is where the relationships a chaplain has with other school chaplains is vital. One of the revealing statistics of this survey is that school chaplains report a lower level of satisfaction with their collegial relationships with other clergy than do rectors. That may well have a significant connection to their overall level of dissatisfaction in their work. If chaplains were able to forge stronger connections with other school chaplains, in their dioceses or geographic regions, it may well help them understand the elusive meaning of and sense of impact in their work. We would encourage school leaders to challenge their chaplains to develop strong collegial relationships, and NAES remains ready to help foster those collegial relationships on a national or regional/diocesan level.

There is a clear difference between levels of satisfaction between male and female chaplains. While some of this data merits further analysis and investigation, it is still evident that female chaplains report a lower level of being “very satisfied” with their work, their housing arrangements, balance between work and family life, and the belief that they can financially support their family. We are encouraged by the fact that there is less disparity in compensation between male and female chaplains than there is in the parish world, but the remaining discrepancy is but a sign among many of the lower levels of confidence and satisfaction that female chaplains carry with them in their work. This difference merits further reflection and discussion at all levels.

There is no doubt that there are few more challenging positions in a school than that of the school chaplain. Over the years I have heard many school heads echo this sentiment, reporting as well on the time and frustration involved in finding good candidates for these difficult positions. The findings of this survey can help schools not only better understand just what a challenging position it is, but what it often takes to keep a good chaplain, once found and called, engaged and involved in this distinctive form of ministry.

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., is executive director of NAES.