The Ethical Dilemma: Defrocked Chaplain

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Defrocked Chaplain: I am a hospice chaplain—well, I was until recently. Through my career, I have evolved in thinking. I am probably an agnostic humanist, closer to atheist. For some time I have been growing more and more uncomfortable with a sense of duplicity. I have considered myself a companion of the dying and their families along the path of grief. I have specialized in helping them use the strength of their faith, not mine, to navigate.

My hospice went through a change in ownership and it has become increasingly difficult to have job security and a sense of fulfillment. Religious conservatism is being forced upon the chaplain staff. I had several disagreements with my immediate supervisor and was fired without warning. This came with mixed emotions. I have some sense of relief as I feel I can to some degree come out of the closet and be true to those around me.

I don’t know what to do now. I need endorsement if I am ever going to do what I do best. I see this as a path to that end. Looking forward as an almost sixty-year-old fired chaplain is difficult. I am very effective ministering to Christians and those of no faith practice. But if they knew what I believe, they would consider me a wolf in a hen house. I have walked with thousands along the path to death and helped them help themselves with their own faith. I want to continue this needed ministry. My ministry to the faithful and the faithless has grown. What am I to do now?

—Out Of The Hen House

Dear Out,

The first thing I recommend is getting in touch with the Clergy Project. This organization supports religious professionals whose lives are in transition because they have lost or are losing their faith. It may be an excellent resource to help you find your way to continuing your work without suppressing or compromising your evolving views.

You may also want to pursue a legal case against your former employer if you believe you were fired without cause or as a result of religious discrimination if your employer was not a religious organization. You can check with the AHA’s legal arm or other church/state watchdogs to see if you have a case.

But having this particular job shut you out may open the path to some other, better opportunities. It’s my understanding that hospice is a burgeoning field and that all faiths and none are embracing the value of end-of-life services. It’s even making headway in Medicare, despite those Chicken-Little squawks about “death panels.” So it’s very likely your experience will be highly valued at other, less dogmatic hospice organizations—many of which may be “faith blind,” meaning that a professional may be called upon to work with patients and families irrespective of their respective faiths.

Update your résumé and gather references from coworkers, clients, and their families, including those with and without faith, to attest to your skills. And when you interview, say the beautiful things that you say in your letter: that you help people help themselves through their own faith or no faith.

Being fired may well prove to be an entirely positive turn of events. It frees you to pursue your extremely valuable work where you will be able to exercise your service less fettered and more effectively, enhancing both your clients’ wellbeing and your own.