How do You Become a Hospital Chaplain?

A hospital chaplain is a professional who provides advice and spiritual counsel to patients and their friends and family members. Hospital chaplains use their counseling expertise and in-depth knowledge of psychology to guide people through medical crises and serious personal challenges. Because they are members of the clergy field, they are authorized to perform religious rites and pray with people who need spiritual comfort.

Acquire an Undergraduate Degree

The first step towards becoming a hospital chaplain is to complete a bachelor’s degree. There are religious-based four-year degrees available in subjects like biblical studies and ministry counseling as well as standard secular degrees like psychology and counseling. Some higher learning institutions may require students to complete prerequisite coursework in religious topics, such as community ministry, and professional topics, such as cognitive psychology or palliative counseling.

Undergraduate degree programs for hospital chaplains are available with Christian specializations, in topics like inductive Bible studies, and non-denominational or interdenominational topics, like world religions. Chaplaincy degree programs examine practical theories and hands-on methods used to help people in hospitals experiencing crises. Students gain knowledge in how to provide care and guide people in times of emotional turmoil, physical pain and spiritual conflict. There are classes on Christian counseling, life skills training and introductions to church ministries.

Acquire a Graduate Degree

Chaplains who want to become licensed counselors will need to earn a master’s degree. Those who aren’t planning on seeking state certification should still earn a master’s degree from an accredited college or seminary program. Hospitals prefer to hire chaplains who have completed a master’s degree because these program train participants in advanced ministry, biblical and spiritual counseling techniques. A master’s in divinity, pastoral care and practical theology are the most common majors.

Master’s degrees in chaplaincy examine theological teachings and how to apply them in spiritual contexts and health care settings. Students are exposed to the similarities and differences in various types of faiths and chaplaincies. Some programs may require students to have prior education in religious counseling or professional work experience. These programs explore complex cultural, interpersonal and theological issues in modern-day society. Students learn how to balance theological reasoning with real-world issues to develop practical solutions to common challenges.

Obtain Certification and Complete a Residency

Depending on the faith and hospital, chaplains may be required to obtain national certification. For example, the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) offers:

  • certification programs
  • continuing education courses
  • publications
  • job opportunities

Almost all chaplains participate in the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education’s Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. It supplements classroom coursework with supervised experiences with patients in:

  • hospitals
  • correctional institutions
  • hospice facilities

The residency is the final step for most hospital chaplains. Most complete the 12-week CPE residency. Degree programs will most likely include a one- to two-year supervised residency with a senior chaplain. During this time, chaplains:

  • attend lectures
  • observe consultations
  • receive mentorship from other experienced counselors and chaplains

Once the residency is complete, the chaplain will be fully trained to help patients and their families deal with:

  • pain
  • trauma
  • serious life challenges

Aspiring hospital chaplains may prepare for their career through volunteer programs in hospital settings that involve support, teaching and administration duties.