Sophie De Haan came to the service with her dog’s name — “Sasha” — emblazoned across her black sweatshirt. She began to cry.

“That’s OK; that’s why we’re here,” a fourth-year veterinary student said, approaching her gently. “This is a safe space.”

From behind the podium at the front of the room, chaplain Scott Campbell, 62, looked out at the misty-eyed crowd.

“You’ve each experienced the real pain of a loss,” he said. “This is a space of healing. … You’re not alone in your grief.”

De Haan and other grieving pet owners gathered at the Celebration of Life and Remembrance for Our Animal Companions, held at the Washington State University campus. It was started by Campbell when he became the nondenominational veterinary chaplain there in 2021.

memorial service for pets
Ribbons memorializing pets are part of the Celebration of Life and Remembrance for Our Animal Companions that chaplain Scott Campbell holds at Washington State University.

The idea of having such a gathering — and a veterinary chaplain in the first place — is an example of the growing demand for chaplains and their services.

Chaplains serve members of communities rather than congregations and typically receive training to provide spiritual care for people of all faith backgrounds. Although there aren’t hard numbers, there’s anecdotal evidence that the field is growing, said Wendy Cadge, founder of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University.

She and others say that as church membership declines across the country, it’s likely chaplains will become the primary spiritual leaders for growing numbers of people in the United States.

“I do think people are feeling called to chaplaincy because so much of the world is changing. As we close churches, especially for millennials, our youth, they’re not feeling called to institutions,” said Erica Cohen Moore, the executive director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.

Wendy Cadge
Wendy Cadge, founder of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University.

The expanding reach of chaplains

In her book “Spiritual Care: The Everyday Work of Chaplains,” Cadge explains that chaplains play a critical yet often overlooked role as religious leaders in America. They are required in settings like the military, federal prisons and VA hospitals, but they also work in two-thirds of civilian hospitals, most hospices, many colleges and a growing number of other areas.

For example, the chaplains of Congress actively engage with national leaders through prayer and private talks. And chaplains have been present at major national protests in recent years, including the racial justice demonstrations across the U.S. in 2020.

Contact with chaplains likely increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, as they were thrust into the spotlight caring for patients, family members and overwhelmed medical staff, Cadge said.

According to a 2022 Gallup Poll, 25% of American adults have interacted with a chaplain at least once in their lives. And while many of that group in the poll (57%) identified themselves as at least “somewhat” religious, even more (76%) described their interaction with a chaplain as “very” or “moderately” valuable. When asked who had initiated the encounter, 47% said the chaplain, 21% said themselves, and 32% said someone else.

Where have you encountered the ministry of chaplains?

Eric Skidmore

The Rev. Eric Skidmore, state police chaplain for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, said he’s often the only faith leader whom officers know, even though they might have longtime ties to a local church.

“To me, it’s a description of how the religious landscape is changing. They see themselves as baptized Christians, but they’re not so active in their local congregations. It’s just the way of the world at this point,” he said.

“I’m often the religious or clergy person they know best. They know me by first name. I’m the guy they see during the week. If they have an agency cellphone, I’m in their cell. They see things I’m sending out through agency email and that kind of stuff.”

The Rev. Janet E. Fuller, co-director of the Master of Arts in Chaplaincy program at Hartford International University, said she’s seen an increase in student enrollment since last year. Many chaplaincy students are second career, she said, and come from diverse religious backgrounds.

Janet Fuller
Janet E. Fuller with Geshe Sangpo and Geshe Nobu, of the Tibetan Buddhism tradition, at a sand mandala ceremony. Mandala building is an annual event with students from Elon University, in Elon, North Carolina, where Fuller was the chaplain for 10 years.

In 2021, the program had 13 students; in 2023, it had 37, including students in the Master of Arts in Islamic Chaplaincy program.

“These are people with some experience looking for more meaningful work or who feel a tug to do something different that will make a difference,” Fuller said. “Chaplaincy does really offer religious leadership that’s a little out of the box. … You can be a religiously fluid person.”

She said as more Americans separate spirituality from religion, chaplains are more approachable to many than pastors. There’s no guilt factor, she said.

Cadge’s research reinforces the idea that chaplains’ reach is expanding.

“Increasingly, if people have contact with a religious professional, it’s a chaplain,” she said.

Where do you look for spiritual leadership? Where do your friends look? How have you noticed the influence of spiritual leaders changing among the generations?

chaplains with interfaith shirts
Students and staff at Elon University's religious life center sporting T-shirts that say "Interact with respect."

Spiritual support in unexpected places

That was the case for De Haan, who is Jewish. She lives in Pullman, Washington — a small university town — where there is no synagogue, and no rabbi.

She was at the university’s veterinary teaching hospital for a routine appointment with her other dog when she met Campbell. As is his custom, he introduced himself to those in the waiting room and offered to add them — and their pets — to his prayer journal.

De Haan said the meeting was serendipitous.

“I needed that. I didn’t realize it,” she said, adding that even though her golden retriever had died a year earlier, her grief had been bottled up.

While visiting with De Haan at the teaching hospital and learning of her loss, Campbell invited her to the memorial service.

De Haan said she works for a children’s hospital, so is familiar with chaplains, but said it never occurred to her that she’d be turning to one.

Animal or pet chaplaincy isn’t new, but most in this field focus only on pet owners, Campbell said. He’s committed to going beyond that, he said, serving three groups: patients (animals), pet owners, and veterinary professionals and staff.

veterinary chaplain
Veterinary chaplain Scott Campbell visits with a dog and its owner.

One challenging issue that veterinary practitioners deal with, Campbell said, is the “dance with death.”

“Since our companions’ lives are so much shorter than ours, … you have to do this dance around discussing end of life, and it’s awful thinking of that sometimes,” he said, noting that at times it’s the veterinarian who takes the brunt.

In 2022, Campbell founded a nonprofit organization, the American Association of Veterinary Chaplains, with a mission to “empower veterinary chaplains to compassionately support the human-animal bond through education, advocacy, and community building.”

As Cadge notes, the chaplaincy field has grown beyond the traditional image of the military chaplain like Father John Mulcahy on the television show “M-A-S-H.”

“We’re trying to make the case that the field has really diversified and expanded,” she said, noting that it is still largely Protestant but split about evenly when it comes to gender. Chaplains are in airports and at seaports, working with disaster relief teams, activists, the homeless and municipal organizations.

Cadge explained that in the 1990s, theological schools began offering specific degree programs in chaplaincy and spiritual care. Previously, chaplains were expected to train for congregational service and figure out how to apply that learning to other settings.

Today, more than a quarter of theological or rabbinical schools have chaplaincy and spiritual care programs, with some designed specifically for Buddhists, Muslims and people from other non-Christian religious backgrounds, according to the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.

circle group
Participants practice Zazen meditation at a gathering of the Iron Tree Blooming Zen meditation club at Elon University.

Health care facilities continue to be the most common settings for chaplain interactions. The Gallup survey found that fully half of people (50%) engaged with chaplains in a hospital, palliative care or hospice context; the next most common (11%) was in a military context.

But Cadge said that recently she’s seen growth in social justice and municipal chaplaincy (police and fire departments), adding that there’s also been a lot of interest around digital chaplaincy, particularly in video games.

Chaplaincy also can offer a path for females within traditions that don’t ordain women, such as Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism, said Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn. She is a board-certified chaplain in the Orthodox Jewish tradition and serves as the president of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.

Thomas-Newborn, who uses a feminine version of the title Rabbi, agreed that chaplains are in a position to help people who aren’t interested in organized religion.

“With the rise in trauma post-pandemic, people are seeking,” she said. “There’s an opportunity to meet people where they are.”

Chaplains nurture individuals, while congregational leaders nurture communities. What is potentially gained and lost by this shift of spiritual caregiving to chaplains?

chaplain office
Chaplain Scott Campbell in his office at Washington State University, where he offers his services to pet owners as well as the veterinarians involved in their care.

The job market

As the field expands in interesting ways, representatives from the three largest professional organizations for chaplains in the country say there remains one big challenge for those seeking employment in chaplaincy: finding well-paid positions.

“Anyone who wants to can claim the title of chaplain,” said the Rev. Mark LaRocca-Pitts, the president of the board of the Association of Professional Chaplains.

There are many types of chaplaincy or spiritual care roles that require varying levels of training or no training; the roles may be full-time, part-time, volunteer or paid. The details depend on the setting, denominational requirements and other factors.

However, the gold standard is board certification, which requires an advanced degree and rigorous training. It is awarded by a vote of the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Inc. (BCCI) Commission on Certification. For people who pursue this credential and seek full-time employment in the field, the options might be disappointing.

“There’s quite a bit of requirements, and then when you get out, jobs are limited and pay is limited,” especially for folks who are not geographically flexible, LaRocca-Pitts said.

He estimates that early-career salaries range from $40,000 to $60,000, noting that in more than two decades as a chaplain, he never made more than $60,000. In addition, because chaplain positions don’t bring in revenue, they can be first up when cuts are made.

As with those in other ministry positions, people seeking jobs as chaplains are doing it for reasons other than money, noted Moore of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.

“When people say they want to do chaplaincy, they know they’re not working for Google,” she said.

To whom do chaplains and their supporters make the case for compensation? What information is required to make the case?

Spiritual care for the present moment

Angela Amie is a mother of five in Rancho Cucamonga, California, who specializes in two very different areas of chaplaincy: hospice and entertainment.

Unlike Campbell, who has an interreligious approach, Amie is motivated by her Christian faith. She attended seminary at Aenon Bible College, a Pentecostal school.

“As a proud Christian chaplain, I consider my faith a superpower that sets me apart,” she said in an email. “I believe in spreading the gospel and encouraging individuals to live as they choose, while also sharing the love and wisdom that God has bestowed upon me. People often sense something special in my presence, and I attribute that to the love of God that I strive to embody.”

chaplain support services
Angela Amie, right front row, with chaplaincy students.

Amie has been a chaplain for nearly a decade and has been moving more toward entertainment chaplaincy in recent years. Entertainment chaplains provide spiritual guidance and support for professionals in the entertainment industry, including entertainers and support staff, as well as their family members.

“I sense a particular calling to chaplaincy in the entertainment industry, because those who create the worlds we consume also need spiritual support,” she said. “I believe it’s crucial for them to stay connected to the source of their abilities and not be merely used up.”

Cadge said the field of chaplaincy attracts people who want to do the work of caregiving without the challenges of congregational life.

Skidmore, the police chaplain, started out behind the pulpit. He was a Presbyterian minister before becoming a chaplain.

“I thought I’d do that the rest of my life, but the Lord had other plans,” he said.

In 1993, Skidmore started volunteering as a police chaplain and began doing the work full time four years later.

“I very much saw this group as an underserved population,” he said, noting that it takes a long time to build a sense of trust with the law enforcement community.

Members of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) having a meal together.

Today, 280 local agencies call on his office, which is staffed by eight people, including mental health professionals and police officers. Skidmore joked that it’s like having a “17,000-member armed congregation.”

Though he does serve armed officers, he noted that he’s also available to non-sworn personnel as well as family members of those working in law enforcement. He said he helps with personal issues when needed but is also on call to respond to urgent events.

“For some people, a critical incident [a traumatic event] can be a very powerful, spiritual experience,” he said, noting that it can prompt the question, “Where is God in all this?”

“So the chaplain’s role is to be there, represent a life of faith, and walk with people as they try and figure out the answer to that question.”

A chaplain’s job, Skidmore said, is simply “to care for people who need caring for.”

He said he gets calls regularly from people asking whether there’s a chaplaincy position open with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program.

“We’re in a world where the delivery mechanisms are changing, right?” Cadge said. “We don’t go to Blockbuster anymore, but we still watch movies on Netflix. What’s the Netflix equivalent around spirituality and religion? I think that’s the question for the current moment.”

Chaplains provide support in situations of distress. In what circumstances are more chaplains needed to help people with overwhelming challenges?

Questions to consider

  • Where have you encountered the ministry of chaplains?
  • Where do you look for spiritual leadership? Where do your friends look? How have you noticed the influence of spiritual leaders changing among the generations?
  • Chaplains nurture individuals, while congregational leaders nurture communities. What is potentially gained and lost by this shift of spiritual caregiving to chaplains?
  • To whom do chaplains and their supporters make the case for compensation? What information is required to make the case?
  • Chaplains provide support in situations of distress. In what circumstances are more chaplains needed to help people with overwhelming challenges?