As Americans Become Less Religious, the Role of Chaplains May Grow

The Rev. Donna Mote, right, a chaplain at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, prays over a coffin with a military escort for the life and service of the deceased. They also pray for wisdom and courage for the escort in completing the sacred duty. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Donna Mote

The Rev. Donna Mote regularly accompanies military personnel escorting the caskets of fallen service members through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where she serves as a chaplain at the busiest airport in the world.

Mote is the first person to greet the escorts once they step off the plane. She stands shoulder to shoulder with them while Delta Honor Guard members march with flags of the five military branches. She stays with them through their layover at the airport. She’s there for support. In many cases, the escorts are grieving because they knew the deceased.

When it’s time to go, Mote helps with check-in at the departure gate, walks down the jetway, and once the remains have been confirmed, she heads up the airplane stairs with the escorts to bid them farewell.

Mote extends her hand for a proper handshake, but she’s often embraced with a big hug, followed with a “thanks, chaps” or a “thanks, padre.”

“These are among the highest compliments I’ve ever received for any ostensibly religious work anywhere,” said Mote, an Episcopal priest.

Chaplains like Mote have long been familiar faces at airports, hospitals, colleges, military bases and other places. They do ministry in the midst of everyday life — dabbing ashes on Congress members’ foreheads during Ash Wednesday services, supporting students in crisis at universities. It’s also not uncommon to see them in homeless shelters or in New York’s subway stations.

In simple terms, a chaplain is a person who performs ministerial duties apart from a parish. And as fewer people identify with a specific religion or attend religious services, Americans may be more likely to meet a chaplain than a local clergy person at a congregation.

That’s why the newly formed Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, aims to explore how chaplains are adapting to their changing circumstances.

“They’re very much below the radar,” said Wendy Cadge, founder of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. “This group of people is sort of rising and taking on new responsibilities.”

The lab, which formed in 2018, hosts events that deal with chaplaincy within Buddhism and other religions, in prison and in secular settings. It also offers resources to those exploring careers in chaplaincy.

Cadge said a national survey she led at Brandeis University found that 20% of the American public had worked with a chaplain or had been contacted by one in the last two years.

“To me, that number is surprisingly high,” she said. “It suggests the need for more understanding.”

The lab’s website helps highlights institutions that offer degree programs and specializations in chaplaincy. It also notes the requirements for certain sectors, such as the training necessary for federally employed chaplains in the Army or in federal prisons. There is no standard training for chaplains working at the nonfederal level, according to a Chaplaincy Innovation Lab report.

The lab aims to better grasp that landscape.

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Source: Religion News Service