Dr. Kamal Abu-Shamsieh recently became Director of the new Interreligious Chaplaincy Program at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU). We asked Dr. Abu-Shamsieh about the program, which seeks to equip chaplains to serve increasingly religiously diverse communities.
Q: Where did the idea for this innovative approach to clinical pastoral education come from?
A: The religious landscape in North America is shifting. Fewer people identify as affiliated with any particular religious tradition, leading to an increase in the group that is often referred to as spiritual “nones.” And of those who do identify with a religious tradition, more and more identify with traditions other than mainline Christian faiths. These demographic trends are likely to continue, creating increasingly pluralistic religious identities and communities. Consequently, there is also a growing need for spiritual caregivers to serve these diverse religious communities.
GTU’s Interreligious Chaplaincy Program is designed to equip spiritual caregivers with the skills and interreligious understanding that will enhance their ability to offer care to these increasingly diverse populations, especially individuals with ties or interests in Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, in which the program offers specialized tracks.
Q: What do you see as an ideal outcome of this work in the short term?
A: Our goal is to offer chaplains substantial theological and practical interreligious knowledge to care for those who may identify with a religious tradition other than their own. This could include care for persons with multiple faith traditions, members of minority religions, secular people, spiritual practitioners, and individuals who are devoutly religious, as well as those who may not claim allegiance to any particular faith.
In doing so, we expand GTU’s unique environment of rich interreligious community that supports intensive scholarly inquiry and deep personal engagement with multiple traditions.
Q: What are some of the challenges and real opportunities to this project?
A: Every challenge is an opportunity for change.
For example, there are very few programs in North America that offer Jewish and Islamic chaplaincy certificates. The combination of Hindu, Jewish, and Islamic approaches to chaplaincy as part of the interreligious certificate is the first of its kind in the world. We will maximize our outreach to attract Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim practitioners to become spiritual caregivers and provide chaplains of other faith communities with knowledge to care for these communities. Each course offered by the Interreligious Chaplaincy Program examines knowledge with a focus on Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu perspectives. For example, students who enroll in an ethics class will gain knowledge of how these minority faiths approach ethics.
Furthermore, our program will introduce students to chaplaincy contexts that present profound opportunities for spiritual caregiving. The need for pastoral care is not confined to those institutions that traditionally employ chaplains. Maybe an individual works in immigration, or family services, or with a disaster-relief agency where additional caregiving skills are needed.
Moving to the Bay Area might not be an option for some. We will diversify the schedule of the classes to include traditional weekly gatherings, monthly meetings, and online education.
Another opportunity offered by this program is the variety of study options. Students can pursue a Certificate of Interreligious Chaplaincy as part of a three-year program through which they can also earn an MA with a concentration in Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies, or Hindu Studies. Meanwhile, those who already have a qualifying Master’s degree can complete the 24-credit certificate program in less than a year.
Q: Who have been key partners in starting and developing this project?
A: Developing a new project such as this at GTU offers a unique opportunity to draw on the existing partnerships of our diverse consortium. Many of GTU’s member schools have long histories of training chaplains and caregivers, and their classes are open to students in this program. Our Centers for Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, and Dharma Studies are all very active partners, and the MA component of our program builds on the proven strength of those centers.
Beyond the GTU, we have established relationships with the spiritual care departments in the Bay Area healthcare institutions that will offer practical training to our graduates. In addition, we are working with the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) in the international arena to create spiritual care literacy and competency in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Q: What lessons do you hope others can draw from the success of your work?
A: Today’s spiritual caregivers are hungry for in-depth interreligious training that can help them be effective amid the religious and cultural diversity they encounter in their work. My belief is that GTU has developed a model for training caregivers that will provide them with the experience and education needed to negotiate religious diversity with sensitivity and expertise.
If you come to study at GTU, whether you’re pursuing work that is specifically interreligious or deeply rooted in a particular religious tradition, you’re learning in an interreligious environment. You’re sharing classes with persons from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and faith traditions. You’re part of a consortium that includes nearly twenty member schools, academic centers, and affiliates, representing a wide range of traditions.
My hope is that we offer a model not only for gaining practical skills but for learning within an environment that is truly and deeply interreligious. This in return can help inspire ever-increasing opportunities for deep spiritual engagement with one another to heal not only individuals but also our world.