Humanism in Action through Nonbeliever Chaplaincy

September 2, 2008. That’s the day I first arrived in Richmond, Virginia, from New York City to embark on a journey that didn’t have a specific destination. The financial crisis was underway and the immediacy of my need to figure something out led me to one of the only people who’d ever supported me up until that point: my former pastor. How ironic that a clear atheist would call upon someone who works for the church for advice. This was a relationship between two human beings interested in having and promoting wholeness.

I attended seminary on what was called a “trial year” enrollment that was for learners the church wasn’t sure it could own. After my first year, I just wanted to leave. I was disgusted after observing how the beliefs and the norms of the community actually contributed to an increase in mental health issues around campus. I couldn’t go back to New York because things had already gotten worse economically, so I decided to stick it out. The lack of community engagement and compassion for those in need who visited the campus forced me to reach outside of that community in order to put my skills to use.

I stumbled upon chaplaincy after graduation. My pastor had always stated that she got into ministry in order to be a chaplain, because people in hospitals have real needs that transcend any theology. She admitted that going to seminary and working in the church was nothing more than getting her “union card” from the only place that had the resources she sought. It was eye-opening. For the first time in my life, I began having conversations with many clergy in which they shared their disbelief in God. More and more I heard about folks getting their so-called union cards and then after retirement, leaving the church, and God, for good. That’s not how I do things, so instead I left the support I had and became engaged in the secular community while pursuing clinical pastoral education (CPE) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

My experience in seminary, where control and psychological games were played in order to indoctrinate, was so obvious that it became unsustainable (and this new generation of millennials is increasingly refusing to go there). On the flipside, chaplaincy has become a real option for people regardless of faith beliefs and affiliation, and my journey in full-time chaplaincy has been the most affirming and fruitful of my life. The hospital has always been a true microcosm of the city it resides in. It’s not homogenous—here are suffering people that need help, the entire spectrum of life plays itself out there, it’s infinitely diverse, and it’s filled with good and compassionate people.

I decided that the best move for me was to pursue national board certification in chaplaincy and make it my new career. The process goes as such: get an endorsement for chaplaincy within your faith belief system, obtain a masters-level education somehow related to comparative religion or within a specific faith system from an accredited institution, undergo four or more units of clinical pastoral education, complete 2,000 hours of supervised chaplaincy post-CPE, show a committee of chaplains that you have what it takes in a few competency essays, and hope that they like you when you finally meet them all face-to-face.

Most nonreligious people will never be able to pursue professional chaplaincy because of the immediate barriers to entry: a faith endorsement. I am proud to be the first person endorsed by The Humanist Society to receive national board certification by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), and I’m grateful for the opportunity to kick down doors and make chaplaincy a relevant career for nonbelievers. My terrible experience in seminary does not correspond to the incredible support I’ve received from VCU, APC, and my companions in chaplaincy. A dirty little secret within theological circles is that most chaplains have “humanist leanings.” That’s because only the chaplains are willing to actually go and be with people who are suffering regardless of their beliefs; it forces you to get grounded really fast and mindfully challenge yourself and the world around you.

There is a potential chaplain in every neighborhood who hasn’t been able to practice because religion thinks it owns compassion, which results in a lot of suffering people with no support. The Humanist Society is not only fully recognized by APC, but chaplains realize the need to support all and are welcoming nonbelievers with open arms to their professional ranks. I have been flooded with communication from chaplains sharing their own struggles to maintain endorsements from religious institutions and leave religion behind who now seek to live authentically and be affiliated with The Humanist Society. Humanism can be a catalyst for change, and my hope is that others who have a passion for chaplaincy will contact me and other supportive nonbelievers to initiate a culture change like the one I described.