Enhancing Ministry beyond the Congregation

Social Science and Spiritual Care

American religious and spiritual life is changing. The number of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” when asked about religion in national surveys is growing—from 16% to 21% between 2007 and 2014. The number of adults who identify as Christian is declining across a range of demographic groups.

While a majority of adults continue to believe in God, those who are absolutely certain about their beliefs declined from 71% to 63% between 2007 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Those who report experiencing a sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing at least once a week increased from 52% to 59% during this same time period, however, and those who felt a sense of wonder about the universe also increased from 39% to 46%. More than half of adults have continued to pray daily over the last ten years, according to Pew surveys, and about 40% reported meditating at least once a week. The upshot, then, is that while Christian self-identification and doctrinal certainty are on the decline, participation in some form of spiritual life is not and, in some cases, is on the rise.

Congregations, traditionally the bedrock of local religious life, are feeling the effects of these changes in Americans’ religious beliefs and behaviors. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches suggests that congregations have been slowly and consistently declining over the past twenty years. Attendance at local congregations is also decreasing.

A report issued by the How We Gather project in 2015 describes millennials gathering not in traditional congregations but in groups including athletic clubs and activist organizations to build community, support personal growth, and cultivate a sense of purpose. As a whole, these trends suggest an American population that is both less religiously affiliated and less connected to traditional religious institutions than in the past, yet still concerned about spiritual and religious issues. This seems especially true for people under the age of 30, though there is evidence of it across all age groups.

This de-institutionalization of American religious life—or at least the shift in the kinds of institutions in which people connect around existential questions of meaning and purpose—is taking place in the midst of deep divisions in other aspects of American life and culture. Emotional debates about immigration, a persistent trend of mass shootings, environmental threats, tensions around the appropriate role of policing, and growing inequality in the United States contribute to an atmosphere of stress and tension that many people experience in their daily lives. Many in the United States, whether on the right, left, or somewhere in between, are emotionally raw from the tenor and ferocity of public debate and from the daily challenges of work, caregiving, and the like. While some in previous decades turned to religious leaders in the midst of such tensions and gathered in congregations for mutual support, the de-institutionalization of American religion calls into question whether this still the case today.

There is one group of religious leaders—chaplains—who have long worked with people outside, rather than inside, local congregations. Their work can be mined for insights into how religious professionals can engage with people outside of religious institutions when the goal is to support those individuals where they are rather than encouraging them to join congregations. Historically called upon to address stressful situations— around death, life transitions, and other potential moments of trauma—chaplains provide ritual support, individual counseling, and spiritual care to people both religiously similar to and religiously different from themselves.

Research and teaching about chaplains tends to focus on specific sectors where chaplains work, like the military, healthcare, or prisons, however, and says little synthetically about how chaplains do this and how individuals can be best prepared for the work. Some have argued that chaplains’ unique positions on institutional edges make a kind of marginality or organizational “in-between-ness” a defining and consistent characteristic of their work. In his classic Hospital Ministry: The Role of the Chaplain Today, Lawrence Holst devoted a whole chapter to how hospital chaplains work “between worlds.” What he calls the “tension” or “enigma” of this organizational position shapes the work; “each world, or structure, has its own domain and demands, its assumptions and mission.”

Present as far back as the Revolutionary War among the American military, chaplains today work in many institutions—healthcare organizations, nursing homes, municipal organizations, airports, ports, universities, prisons, sports teams, some truck stops and race tracks, and as part of emergency efforts. As they are deployed with members of the armed forces, pray with patients before they enter surgery, and counsel those in the criminal justice system, chaplains encounter people in existentially fraught moments and are in unique positions to comfort, support and console. Some, like New York City Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge, O.F.M., who was the first official casualty on 9/11, knowingly place themselves in harm’s way as they run towards danger rather than away from it in an effort to serve and protect. Others, like evangelical Christian chaplains who offered support following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and counseled victims of mudslides in Vermont, try to convert people and have become sources of significant conflict around questions of free exercise and religious diversity.

Surveying 1,000 students at an élite liberal arts college in New England, we found that 46% of respondents have spent time with some sort of chaplaincy.

One of the key challenges of our current moment is the serious lack of a data-driven understanding of why religious demographics look like they do and what can be done to ensure that individuals and communities can have their needs met. In this spirit we have set out to gather pilot data from one particular community—students in institutions of higher education—to begin to see how a key generation, which is driving the population’s demographic shifts, engages with the forms of religious and spiritual leadership that have adapted to serve those outside of traditional contexts. The BTS Center recognized the potential of our project to apply the methods of social science for the betterment of American religious and spiritual life.

Preliminary results from this work are astounding. Surveying 1,000 students at an elite liberal arts college in New England, we found that 46% of respondents have spent time with some sort of chaplaincy. Almost half (49%) of the respondents described chaplains as “very important” or “somewhat important” to the campus experience. In that group alone, nearly a third of the students said chaplains were “very important.”

We note that this is distinct from student engagement with more traditional models of religious or spiritual leadership, such as parish or congregational attendance. Yet it speaks to the need of students for engagement with transcendent or even transcendental ideas, issues they are more comfortable grappling with alongside a chaplain than a counselor or social worker.

Our project’s long-term value emerges from our awareness that there is little continuing education for college and university chaplains who address a multitude of difficult and sensitive issues on today’s politically complex campuses. When we complete our analysis and publish the results of the survey, we will be able to name these challenges, assess what is known about them in existing research literature, and make actionable recommendations to help university chaplains address students’ needs. Our reviews of the limited research suggest that the study of university chaplaincy rarely focuses on outcomes, even though the needs of students and of the institutions themselves around crisis management, grief work, responses to trauma, and the facilitation of difficult conversations and dialogues is great. Our project begins to outline what meaningful outcomes measurement might look like and how college and university chaplains can work toward them.

In February we presented early stages of this work at the joint Association of College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA) and National Association of Campus and University Chaplains (NACUC) meeting. In addition to discussing what our survey was beginning to tell us about student engagement with campus chaplaincy, we also invited conference attendees to join us in guided focus group discussions. Responses to what seem to be very mundane questions—“Who pays your salary?” “What percentage of your time to you spend working with students?” “What division of the university are you housed within?”—in reality tell us significant things about contemporary campus chaplaincy. Engaging this data deeply and including that analysis in our final, published reports will help provide a more accurate picture of contemporary campus chaplaincy and how it can best meet student needs.

This work will impact several groups. First, it has already benefited the chaplains who attended our presentation and focus group sessions at the ACURA/NACUC joint meeting. More importantly, our published results will benefit faculty, staff and students by giving chaplains the tools they need to do their jobs more effectively. Finally, the initiatives serves as a model for chaplains in higher education nationally.

We know that the religious/spiritual demographic profile does track with that of the United States population in general; however, it would be a mistake to conclude simply that this means something like “religion is on the decline.” Instead, as Rebecca Barton notes, scholars understand that “college and university campuses are not necessarily becoming more secular, but are part of an ever-changing landscape that is becoming more pluralist.” In other words, affiliations with historically majority religious traditions (i.e., mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.) may be on the decline, but engagement with the issues that historically unfolded within traditional congregations has not. In few places are these processes more fraught than on campuses in higher education, where young adults are coming to terms with their pasts, their futures, and how they see the world. We are confident that this project will help chaplains serving such students and are grateful to The BTS Center for investing in the future of American spiritual care.

chaplaincy, community, congregation, millennials, social science

Wendy Cadge

Wendy Cadge is Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University and Founder of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. With Tiffany Steinwert (Stanford University) and Shelly Rambo (Boston University), she is the recipient of a 2018 BTS Center Compass Grant.

Michael Skaggs

Michael Skaggs is Executive Director of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. He manages a 2018 Compass Grant from The BTS Center. You can follow the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab on Twitter @ChaplainLab.


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