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June 20, 2018
Volume 15 No. 6

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The Elephant in Chaplaincy’s Room

It is likely that everyone is familiar with the expression “an elephant in the room”.   In the Cambridge dictionary, it is an idiom meaning “an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.” i   As chaplains we’ve probably dealt with them almost on a daily basis in our work:  the family that doesn’t want to discuss the poor prognosis of a loved one, the client that doesn’t acknowledge that they have a broken relationship that is affecting their life; or a staff member who doesn’t admit to their discomfort with providing care to a person from a different beliefs and values system.

Within chaplaincy today there is an elephant in the room.  It’s an obvious problem.  It’s a difficult situation.  And we, as chaplains, don’t want to talk about it – at least not in a collaborative and professional way.  To explain what I mean, we need to remind ourselves of a bit of our history.

In November 2004, four foundational documents, the Common Standards for Professional Chaplaincy, were affirmed by the boards of the former Council on Collaboration, which included the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC), National Association of Jewish Chaplains, and Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC).   The documents included:  Common Standards for Professional Chaplaincy, Common Standards for Pastoral Educators/Supervisors, Common Code of Ethics for Chaplains, Pastoral Counselors, Pastoral Educators and Students, and Principles for Processing Ethical Complaints. 

It was a pivotal moment for the profession, as it was the first time common documents had been written and approved.  All of the participating organizations agreed that they would mirror the foundational documents in their own, particularly the Code of Ethics.  The intention of the process was not to limit these documents but to make them a gift to the profession as a whole.

Since 2004, the number of chaplaincy organizations ii that have mirrored and incorporated the Common Standards into their processes has risen dramatically which is an excellent movement within the profession.  While each individual organization has its own Code of Ethics, all mirror the statements laid out in the Common Code of Ethics, which set out ethical principles for relationships with clients, colleagues, other professionals in the community, one’s faith community and between supervisors and students where applicable.

Each section of a code of ethics, whether it be from the Common Standards or an individual association’s, is important.  They provide the pathway by which professional chaplains are to engage in their practice and be in relationship with others.

For example, when discussing how a chaplain, chaplaincy educator, or chaplaincy student should engage in their relationships with colleagues, the Common Standards state in its Ethical Principles in Relationships with Colleagues that: Spiritual care professionals engage in collegial relationships with peers…respect each other and support the integrity and well-being of their colleagues. iii

Like many chaplains, I hold dual board certification from two groups.  I am certified as a board certified chaplain (BCC) by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) and an advanced practice board certified chaplain (APBCC) by the Spiritual Care Association (SCA). So along with the Common Code of Ethics, each year as required by my certifying bodies I am required to reaffirm their individual codes of ethics.  That of the APC states:

120.1. The Association shall promote integrity, competence, respect for the dignity of all persons, and collegiality among its members. iv

The code of ethics of the SCA states:

            2. Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues

a.   Colleagues and their qualifications, views, and professional obligations should be treated with respect, regard, support, and confidentiality.

b.    Unwarranted negative criticism of colleague should be avoided in all verbal and written communications, with other colleagues, and with persons to whom care is being provided. Unwarranted criticism includes but is not limited to colleagues’ level of competence or individuals’ attributes such as race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, spiritual, or existential beliefs and values, culture, immigration status, and mental or physical disability. v

If you read the codes of ethics from the other organizations that embrace the Common Standards you will find similar language.  Chaplains are expected to treat other chaplains with respect, dignity, collegiality, and collaboration, refraining from negative criticism, attacks, and gossip.

Throughout the history of the profession, there have always been disagreements – okay, all out spats, to be honest – between the varying chaplaincy organizations.  In my years of leadership, I had a close view of them, and when APC president facilitated many of the conversations.  It was always my choice to go into those discussions with a listening ear rather than a determination to argue.  By doing so, communication doors were opened and I learned a great deal from chaplains from other organizations; many of whom became good friends and colleagues.  I still believe this is important.  Essential. Necessary.

However, in recent years the profession has experienced an increase not simply in disagreements but in a marked lack of collegiality.  Demonstrating respect to and the dignity of others who may share different views has been replaced by public attacks of individuals and organizations, the intentional spreading of miscommunication and gossip, and all-out flat refusals to dialogue, let alone collaborate with others who have been labeled as “not like me.”  Most concerning is that many of these actions are being led and encouraged by leaders within chaplaincy membership organizations. 

That is the elephant in the room of chaplaincy.  It is time that it is talked about and brought out into the open.

Recently my character was attacked on a public chaplaincy association's Facebook page by a current member of its board of directors.  I responded back clearly and directly without malice or attacking in return.  The next day I received a notice that I was blocked from the group.  When I contacted the leadership of the association to ask why, including specifics on what I had said, I received no answer.  Was it because I hold dual certification in two associations?  Many chaplains do.   Or maybe because of where I work?  Where I live?  I wasn’t the only one booted from that group; others who had not violated the stated guidelines of the group were also blocked with no explanation.  And this wasn’t the first time; other chaplains have shared that they experienced the same months, a year, even two years ago.  They, like me, were apparently “not like us.”  

How did we get to this point in our profession where the elephant has not only come into the room but appears to be welcomed and even assisted in staying?

As chaplains we provide person-centered, holistic care that is based on being kind, advocating for the needs of others, and providing interventions towards outcomes that bring persons to a sense of wholeness and peace, however, they define that for themselves.  We work diligently with members of other disciplines to ensure that collaboration exists.  Chaplaincy is growing in its ability to be recognized for its contributions in numerous and varied settings. 

Yet, as a profession, we seem to be unable at this moment to practice those same skills with each other. There is fragmentation rather than collaboration and personal attacks rather than conversation and dialogue. The result will be that unless the elephant that has moved into the midst of chaplaincy is dealt with, we will harm not only ourselves as individuals but as a profession – and in the end, the very people that we are asked to provide care to.

Sue Wintz, MDiv, BCC, APBCC is the managing editor of Plainviews® and Director, Professional and Community Education at HealthCare Chaplaincy Network.  She is also the Director of Education for the Spiritual Care Association. Sue has over 35 years of clinical, administrative, writing, educational design, development and teaching experience in the provision of professional chaplaincy and spiritual care in numerous health care, and community settings as well as an expert advisor to interdisciplinary professional organizations. She is an Advanced Practice Board Certified Chaplain (APBCC) member of the Spiritual Care Association.  Sue is also a Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) member and past president of the Association of Professional Chaplains who, in 2013 gave her its highest honor - the Anton Boisen Professional Service Award. 

[i] Cambridge Dictionary.  Web. Accessed 3/26/2018.

[ii] The additional organizations include the American Correctional Chaplains Association, the Association of Certified Christian Chaplains, the Center for Spiritual Care & Pastoral Formation, the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, Healthcare Chaplains Ministry Association, the International Association of Christian Chaplains, the National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains, the National Conference of Veterans Affairs Catholic Chaplains, the National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains, and the Spiritual Care Association.

[iii] 5.0. Ethical Principles in Relationships with Colleagues.  Common Code of Ethics for Chaplains, Pastoral Counselors, Pastoral Educators, and Students.  2004.

[iv] Code of Ethics. Association of Professional Chaplains.  Web.  Accessed 3/26/2018.

[v] Code of Ethics.  Spiritual Care Association.  Web. Accessed 3/26/2018.



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