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“Professionalizing” Chaplaincy

March 18, 2011
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Calvin on Ethics from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

I believe ethics is hard.  It is one dimension that makes the work of the chaplain hard.  I don’t believe ethical decision making can be ‘solved’ or made any easier by a few sheets of paper, no matter how wise the words they contain.  I don’t believe belonging to a “profession” makes one any more ethical than otherwise.  However, I have recently read a number of articles (Morhmann, for one) calling for the “professionalization” or chaplaincy under more stringent entry standards, greater oversight, and through the creation and application of a standard code of “professional ethics.”  Naturally, I am suspicious.

In my prior “profession” of architecture, for example, no amount of professional ethics codes (architects and designers have several) have prevented the construction of heinous and damaging buildings in recent years.  These ethics codes have in recent years moved away from a content of what to a content of how, generally outlining professional ethics in terms of relationships rather than outcomes.  While this is laudable, I also believe it has been used to get away with a great deal of negligence, especially in regards to the professional’s responsibility to society at large.  After all, when was the last time ‘Society’ was a plaintiff in a lawsuit?

In addition, I find that the professionalization of many disciplines is being carried out for egocentric principles – not because it is in the best interest of those whom the profession serves, but because it is in the best interest of the professionals.  In architecture, for example, it has served to set the bar of education requirements and licensure so high as to exclude a large number of talented individuals with no commensurate (in my opinion) improvement in our built environment.  The current arguments being put forth for the professionalization of the planning (urban, community, environmental, regional or otherwise) profession seem to focus on how this can enhance the recognition of the profession itself, not the work which it does.  As a legal mechanism, it often gives the professions some form of self-regulatory authority, such as through state recognized licensure standards which disadvantage diversity (of educational path, not race or ethnicity necessarily) and low-socioeconomic individuals.  In other words, professionalization functions to exclude more than to protect.  I would not want to see chaplaincy or the job of ethicist subject to such restrictive and self-defeating processes.

I believe the standards in place to ensure competency are adequate (MDIV and CPE).  It should be left in the hands of potential employers to determine what makes one a ‘professional’ chaplain.  This will allow for greater latitude to recognize individuals of diverse life paths and enhance the variety of voices in the conversation.  In addition, the creation of individual institutional codes of ethics is likely to be more effective, by providing an opportunity to foster debate and frequent re-visitation, rather than unthinkingly applying a cookie-cutter professional ethics code.

Modern day thinkers in the area of ethics application are on the right track, but need to keep the tensions and pitfalls I have mentioned foremost in their mind.  Ego plays a far larger role than current thinkers are giving it credit for, even if their overall principles are sound.  Their intentions are good, but I would oppose any kind of professionalization of chaplaincy or the imposition of a “professional” code of ethics for chaplains as a whole, but also strongly, strongly encourage (mandate?) that each and every individual institution enact a code of their own.  It is precisely because moral decisions are so important that we must take great care with our understanding of how they are reached and what outcomes we seek when making them.

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