Religious Innovations and Chaplains in the Spotlight

By Wendy Cadge, Founder, Chaplaincy Innovation Lab and Michelle Scheidt, Senior Program Officer, Fetzer Institute

Change is happening everywhere in the midst of COVID19, including around spirituality and religion. Traditional congregations are meeting online, by Zoom, and in ways physically but not socially distant. Funerals and memorial services, officiated by religious leaders, are taking place remotely. Almost half of millennials have started new religious practices since COVID19 started, with 43% reporting attending an online service.  Uncertainty, loneliness and fear shapes much of how we respond, as do our desires for belonging and becoming.

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Shedding a New Light on Chaplaincy

Aware of the significance of the moment, today we launch Meditations on Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care: A Conversation with Chaplains across Settings. This new ebook sheds light on the effort, reporting on a diverse gathering of two dozen chaplains, scholars, and thought leaders held in December 2019 at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  While the convening happened before COVID, the participants envisioned a bold future for chaplaincy.  In May 2020, this vision and this work are needed more than ever before.

Spiritual and religious life was changing long before COVID hit, with empty pews, growing secularization, and a sense that traditional “delivery models” of religion are increasingly out of date. Innovations were happening as well. In the past year, Catholic sisters and non-religious millennials formed partnerships in cities across the United States focused on spiritual formation and social action.

Formally called Nuns and Nones— a wordplay on their religious differences — these intergenerational groups are learning together and seeking to create a more just world, including in the midst of the pandemic.

The Sacred Design Lab was launched out of the work founders Sue Phillips, Angie Thurston and Capser ter Kuile did exploring where and how millennials are coming together in sacred and supportive communities. Rather than finding these groups in the churches and synagogues of their elders, many millennials are finding this support in fitness groups, workplaces and community organizations. The Sacred Design Lab uses collective human wisdom to build and support the spiritual infrastructure of the future.

Other examples abound, including the Elul Challenge, a month-long journey of forgiveness; Alt*Div, a remote community for self-directed, spiritually-rooted learning; Faith Matters Network, which hosted People’s Suppers to build relationships across difference and is now training chaplains for social movements; and close to 7,000 clergy and chaplains gathered in a Facebook group for support and creativity in the midst of COVID19.

Running Toward the Dying Rather Than Away

Chaplains are also increasingly in the spotlight as they are reported running toward the dying rather than away. More than 40 news stories and op-eds about chaplains have appeared since February, highlighting the key role of spiritual caregivers during the pandemic.

It’s a moment for the public to see the amazing work being done by chaplains, who were previously less visible in the mainstream media and in everyday life.  Even before the COVID pandemic, chaplains – traditionally found in the military, healthcare organizations, prisons, and campuses – were also innovating as their roles expand, along with the kinds of workplaces in which they operate.

Isolation, suffering and loss have become everyday experiences for many during the pandemic.  Some people who previously didn’t find themselves needing spiritual care are turning to chaplains for support—in coping with loneliness, searching for connection and meaning, processing trauma and grief, celebrating important life moments, and mourning the loss of loved ones.

In a previous generation, people who were hurting or searching would have turned to their local clergy for support.  Since more and more individuals today aren’t connected to religion or congregations, the role of chaplains in offering spiritual care is increasingly critical. Chaplains serve everyone, of any religion or no religion, extending care and support, spiritual counseling, leading spiritual or religious practices, praying, and offering a caring presence.

The New Era of Spiritual Care

Spiritual care looks different in the coronavirus era as chaplains visit with individuals and families by phone and online.  Chaplains have stepped up to the challenge, praying with people on Zoom, leading Facebook Live funeral services, and sitting in silence with elders on the phone.

Spiritual caregivers continue to innovate, learning about virtual chaplaincy from each other with the support of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab’s weekly town hall meetings, webinars, and other learning opportunities.  Telechaplaincy has become a normal method of providing spiritual care.

The Lab and its many partners are working together to address people’s emerging spiritual needs – before, during, and after the pandemic.  Chaplains, educators, and social scientists are in conversation together to develop the best pathways and structures to offer the spiritual care people need now and for the future.

Download the full report here. 


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