Covenantal Pluralism in the Work of Chaplaincy

The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab is excited to partner with Templeton Religion Trust on a project to examine how chaplains act as facilitators of covenantal pluralism. In a world that is marked by increasingly deep divides, covenantal pluralism is an emerging framework that, at its core, seeks to respect and value the essence of others’ identity without sacrificing the substance of one’s own. As Stewart, Seiple, and Hoover (2020) outline in their vision of covenantal pluralism, sustained engagement between people of different religion or worldviews requires humility, empathy, patience, and courage, along with fairness, reciprocity, cooperation, self-critique, and self-correction. At the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, we believe that this vision of covenantal pluralism is one that is urgently needed today in the U.S., and globally. In the past decade, our country and world has witnessed burgeoning political and ideological divides across the political spectrum, the exposure of race, gender, and class-based inequities, as well as a quickly growing, demographically diverse population that represents a wide range of religious, cultural, and ethnic groups.

Chaplains: a natural fit

The work of chaplaincy is a natural home for the framework of covenantal pluralism, as learning to operate and serve in a pluralistic and diverse context is central to the work of chaplains. As spiritual caretakers who must serve and minister to a wide range of people outside of their own faith traditions, the vision of covenantal pluralism easily maps onto chaplaincy. Chaplaincy is distinct from the congregational (or traditional) model of ministry. While the latter depends on members of a local, regionalized religious body or organization, the chaplaincy model is integrated into other established organizations and institutions. In short, traditional ministry can be described as a “come to me” model, while chaplaincy “comes to you,” be it in hospitals, the workplace, the military, prisons, universities, airports, public transportation, and beyond, and necessarily involves engagement across differences.

Covenantal Pluralism landing page

In breaking down the term coventantal pluralism itself, the word “covenant” entails relationship, and one that is different from a transactional, contractual relationship that is governed by rules, the violation of which nullifies the relationship. But a covenant endures beyond specific conflicts and beyond episodic departures from norms. It involves a more fluid relationship between rules and grace (Stewart, 2020:9). Key commonalities across most branches of “pluralism” eschew “simplistic relativism, and approach the challenges of diversity with realism but not fatalism, and envision a positive pluralism that calls not for mere side-by-side, arms-length coexistence but for a principled engagement across religious and worldview divides (2020:8).”

The long roots of covenantal pluralism

The vision of covenantal pluralism is exemplified through the historical example of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island on the principles of robust pluralism, freedom of conscience, and cross-cultural respect (2020:2). Unlike some of his Puritan contemporaries, Williams did not seek to impose his own Christian faith and tradition on Native Americans, paid them for the land on which he lived, and sought to learn their language in order to build relationship and community with them.

Not unlike Roger Williams, the chaplains that our lab has surveyed and studied over the years seek to exemplify these principles of compassion, cross-cultural respect, robust pluralism, and freedom of conscience. In the numerous studies our lab has conducted, chaplains across religious traditions often serve in contexts that require a relational commitment to those they minister to and have to maintain a delicate balance between caring for people in a way they can understand and that is still respectful of differences in background. Our project seeks to better understand where the gaps are in training chaplains and how chaplains can better and more effectively serve the groups and contexts they minister to from the framework of covental pluralism. While 21% of Americans had contact with a chaplain in the last two years, a recent study finds that though there is little consensus over what “standardized” chaplaincy training should look like. However, most educators agree that there needs to be greater attention to religious diversity training across theological schools (Clevenger 2020).

Chaplains across religious traditions often serve in contexts that require a relational commitment to those they minister to and have to maintain a delicate balance between caring for people in a way they can understand and that is still respectful of differences in background.

One of the “enabling conditions” for covenantal pluralism, “religious literacy,” goes beyond basic knowledge of world religions and prioritizes 1) knowing one’s own religious tradition and how to engage with others outside of that tradition, 2) one’s neighbor’s religious and spiritual framework, and what that framework says about engaging others, and 3) the relevant and appropriate contexts in which multi-faith collaborations may (or may not) be advisable. Sentence here about how this applies to chaplaincy

As religious affiliations and local congregations are on the decline in the U.S. and the country becomes increasingly diverse, we believe that the work of chaplaincy is ever more urgent and goes hand in hand with the vision of covenantal pluralism. It is our hope that the findings of this project and future CIL projects will enable chaplains to better minister to the needs of everyone in a way that calls forth compassion, mutual respect, and deepened understanding.

TIEN Grace

Grace Tien is a postdoctoral scholar in the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.