As more encounters with religious professionals occur in secular places such as hospitals and disaster areas, a project at Boston University School of Theology aims to prepare spiritual leaders for roles and responsibilities outside of traditional places of worship. The Educating Effective Chaplains project, supported by the Theology Program, will partner with other theology institutions to study the skills chaplains need to support people of varying religious beliefs and explore how best to teach those skills.
Inspired by his Christian Science church’s tradition of supplying military chaplains, Roger Gordon hopes to minister in the army. But with few Christian Scientists in the ranks (the church has experienced a steady decline in membership in the last few decades), it’s “not even close,” he says, that most of his flock will be of different faiths than his, or have no faith.
The School of Theology student is fine with that. “Service to God, for us, includes—everyone,” Gordon says. STH’s three-year chaplaincy track did its part to prepare him, both culturally (“There’s such a diverse representation of faiths here”) and educationally. His coursework included world religions and a class with Shelly Rambo on trauma and theology “that helped me a lot.”
This academic year 13 matriculants entered the chaplaincy track, double the typical number since Rambo, an STH associate professor of theology, spearheaded its creation five years ago. That surging interest, reflected nationally—one quarter of theology schools have created chaplaincy tracks, she says—hints at what Rambo believes is the religious landscape of the future: chaplains will be the new pastors.
“Religious leadership in the United States in the future is going to look something like chaplaincy,” she predicts, with more Americans shunning organized religion and houses of worship. People will rub elbows with clergy not in church, temple, and mosque, but “in places like hospitals, disaster areas…the military, prisons. Did you know there are airport chaplains?”
Recognizing this trend, the Henry Luce Foundation has given Rambo a three-year, $500,000 grant to study, with 18 other theology institutions, the best ways to educate these future foot soldiers of God. The partner institutions range “from evangelical, fundamentalist schools to interfaith schools to Presbyterian schools,” she says.