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A hospital chaplain offers spiritual and emotional guidance to patients and their families. Many of these professionals enter this career with degrees in religion, theology, and pastoral studies, as well as training in psychology or counseling. Explore this guide to learn about the educational and certification requirements for becoming a hospital chaplain, and the career's employment and salary outlook.
What Is a Hospital Chaplain?
A hospital chaplain tends to the spiritual and emotional needs of patients who are injured, ill, or at the end of life. They also offer guidance to patients' families, especially those dealing with the loss of a loved one. Hospital chaplains sometimes offer support to doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals as well.
Hospital chaplains can come from many different religious backgrounds, but need at least a bachelor's degree in religion, counseling, or a related field. Professional counselors often hold a master's degree. Depending on the healthcare organization, ordination or certification in clinical pastoral counseling may be required for employment.
All hospital chaplains must possess the sensitivity to manage the range of emotions expressed by patients and families during challenging times. In most healthcare settings, hospital chaplains must be available around the clock or on an on-call basis, regularly taking evening, weekend, and holiday shifts.
Skills and Competencies
- Grief and bereavement counseling: One of the most important aspects of the chaplain's role is to provide support, guidance, and comfort for both patients and families dealing with a life-changing diagnosis or death.
- Family counseling: In cases of a sudden medical crisis, a chronic condition, or death of a loved one, chaplains offer counseling, prayer, and/or religious services or sacraments.
- Staff counseling: Chaplains offer spiritual and emotional support to hospital personnel dealing with a challenging case or their generally chaotic work conditions.
- Staff education on spiritual issues: Chaplains provide staff training to understand and respect the spiritual and emotional needs of patients from different faith backgrounds or those with no religious faith.
- Presurgical and postsurgical counseling: Professional chaplains can relieve stress and address fears related to surgery and recovery, offering prayer with patients and their families and providing emotional support.
- Communication skills: Hospital chaplains must be good listeners, empathize with and understand the issues of patients and their families, and respect their rights to confidentiality.
- Commitment to faith and tolerance: Chaplains provide spiritual counseling rooted in their faith tradition while open to serving the needs of patients and families from all religious and cultural backgrounds.
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How to Become a Hospital Chaplain
Depending on the employer, a hospital chaplain must hold at least an undergraduate degree in a religious studies or counseling field. The process may take 4-6 years, in addition to completion of post-graduate clinical pastoral education credits and certification through one of the national chaplain organizations.
Earn a Bachelor's Degree
For many healthcare facilities, a bachelor's degree serves as the minimum education requirement for employment as a hospital chaplain. You can major in religion, theology, pastoral counseling, psychology, or a related field. Some colleges and universities offer specialized chaplain programs. Whatever your major, coursework should address grief or anger counseling, behavioral and mental health, and ethics.
Earn a Master's Degree
Many hospitals hire chaplains who have at least a master's degree, and some employers prefer candidates with a Ph.D. Hospital chaplains often pursue a master's in some form of religious studies, theology, pastoral counseling, or psychology. Many graduate programs require applicants to have volunteer or professional work experience. A master's degree is a requirement for certification.
Complete Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Units
Hospital chaplains gain practical experience working with a variety of patient populations by completing a 12-week Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training program. You may earn CPE units as part of your master's degree or through an independent medical facility. Most certification programs require you to complete at least four units of CPE credits.
Many employers require hospital chaplains to obtain certification. Each national chaplain organization establishes slightly different standards for its certifications. Depending on your faith and professional goals, you can choose to obtain certification from groups like the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, the Association of Professional Chaplains, or the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Complete a Supervised Residency
Many hospitals recommend that chaplains complete a residency under the supervision of a senior chaplain before gaining approval for employment. Aspiring chaplains in a residency program, which can last up to two years, usually receive a stipend. These residencies provide work experience in a variety of settings and help develop pastoral counseling skills.
NOTE: Professional certifications are privately regulated and do not replace or equal state licensure for mental health professionals.
Hospital Chaplain Outlook and Salaries
As the healthcare industry becomes more complex and impersonal, hospital chaplains perform an increasingly important role providing individualized support to patients and their families.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data for clergy, which includes hospital chaplains, demand for clergy and compensation rates vary by type of organization and geographic region. Clergy working in nursing care facilities, hospitals, and religious organizations earn between $54,290 to $61,840 per year on average. New York and California employ the highest number of clergy.
Hospital chaplain positions are available across the U.S., paying an average annual salary of $56,320, with higher earnings for those with graduate degrees and certification. As hospital chaplains acquire experience, they may advance their careers and increase their earnings by moving into leadership roles as coordinators or directors, or by supervising and teaching those new to the field.
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Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Hospital Chaplain
How much do hospital chaplains make?
Compensation for hospital chaplains depends on several factors, including their educational background and the type of organization and geographic region where they work. According to Payscale, hospital chaplains earn a mean yearly income of over $56,000 per year.
What is the role of a hospital chaplain?
Hospital chaplains wear many hats, offering spiritual, emotional, and other forms of support to patients, families, and hospital staff. Their duties may include counseling, crisis intervention, grief and bereavement assistance, conducting religious services, and offering comfort and consolation through prayer.
What is the best degree for a hospital chaplain?
You may become a hospital chaplain with a bachelor's or master's in theology, religious studies, pastoral counseling, or psychology. Some colleges and universities offer specialized degrees in spiritual care, professional chaplaincy, and pastoral counseling with a focus in healthcare.
Do hospital chaplains need to be ordained?
You may not always need a formalized religious affiliation to work as a hospital chaplain, but some religious organizations or church-affiliated hospitals may require ordination. For some certifications and positions, you may need an official endorsement, commission, or reference from your religious organization.