The Decline of Church and the Rise of Chaplains - Issue #24

Fitz goes behind the scenes on his recently published Boston Globe Magazine feature story

This weekend, a feature story I wrote will be published in the Globe Magazine as part of Sunday’s Boston Globe. It’s titled “Chaplains and the rise of on-demand spiritual support,” and it’s available online here, but be warned, the Globe’s paywall is pretty strict (you might have to register with the Globe’s website, but you’ll get a certain number of free articles, I think). This story was the culmination of months of pitching and planning, reporting and writing, and I’m proud of the way it came out. A short synopsis, ripped directly from the story’s subhead: “As traditional religious practice recedes, many New Englanders are increasingly turning to a different kind of pastor when and where they’re needed.” I’ll say more in a moment.

I have to be honest and acknowledge that the idea for the story wasn’t my idea; rather, it began with a tip from my editor at the magazine, Michael Fitzgerald. We are not related, but we work really well together. Michael, like me, is interested in the way religion functions in culture, so we’re always trying to find ways to work together on stories that explore that. Michael put me in touch with Wendy Cadge, a professor at Brandeis University who studies chaplaincy, and I’m incredibly indebted to Wendy for basically teaching me everything I know about chaplains over months of phone calls and emails loaded with attachments to articles she’d written. She is truly the authority.

I should also say that over the past several months I often described the process of writing this story as “life giving,” because even though it was at times difficult and the deadlines were brutal (the first draft was due on the first day of classes this semester), after every conversation that I had with these incredible chaplains—culminating in walking around Boston with chaplains from Common Cathedreal who minister to the homeless—filled me up. I do hope you’ll find some time to read the story, which features photos from Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Jessica Rinaldi. But, in the meantime, I wanted to share some behind-the-scenes thoughts and ideas that didn’t make it into the piece. 

When I first started reporting this, I had deep concerns that the emerging trend of turning toward chaplains for spiritual care signaled a breakdown in community. Churches are communities, I reasoned, wherein parishioners commune with each other as well as with the pastor or pastors. But in chaplaincy, you don’t have the community of your fellow parishioners; rather, it’s typically a one-on-one relationship with a chaplain. But, after dozens of conversations with chaplains and those who study their work, I was disabused of this notion. The reality, I came to see, is more like a spokes and wheel model, where the chaplains is at the center, but forms a community around herself (most of the chaplains that I spoke to are women). It’s a different kind of community certainly, but one of the interesting things about it is that it arises where people already are—in their workplaces, in nursing homes or hospitals where they are being treated, on military bases or college campuses. 

But still, I thought of this new kind of community as symptomatic of a culture that has been and continues to fragment, to deinstitutionalize and disassociate from communities where we might come into contact with people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and beliefs. I brought up the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s seminal work on the increasing fragmentation in American culture, often in my early interviews.

Again, however, as I came to understand the topic better, I realized that it’s not a symptom, but an antidote. The culture is fragmenting, people are not attending churches the way they used to, and yet they’re still seeking out some kind of community and some kind of spiritual support. Chaplains have been there all along, Wendy Cadge liked to remind me, but they’re moving to the fore precisely because of the needed created by the way we are increasingly moving away from institutions of all kinds. Not to mention the fact that, for at least the last several decades, the churches that are growing and thriving are not the melting pots of beliefs and backgrounds, but rather the more homogenous evangelical congregations where attendees must already subscribe to the right set of beliefs—religious and, often, political—in order to feel welcomed.

And this leads to one last reflection. After reading my story, my friend Seth, a seminary student, asked, “is the rise in chaplaincy universal (liberal and conservative denominations) as well as people from other faiths?” This is a really great question, and it gets to a point that I didn’t have the opportunity to address in the story. Certainly, there are non-Christian chaplains; one of the first people quoted in the story is the Hindu adviser in the University Chaplaincy at Tufts University. She acknowledges that the word “chaplain” is rooted in the Christian tradition but is broadening to include different faiths. So yes, people from other faiths are becoming and turning to chaplains. I regret that I didn’t include more examples of this in the story.

But when it comes to the question of liberal and conservative denominations, it is abundantly clear that this is more of a trend among religious liberals. A story that my mom shared with me is instructive here. She recalls meeting a chaplain who worked in healthcare settings and remarking that it must be amazing to share the Gospel with people in such vulnerable moments, to which the chaplain recoiled, saying something to the effect of “I would never.” 

Almost every chaplain that I spoke to said that they had no desire to be pastors in the traditional sense because they would be constrained by a particular faith tradition. They had no investment in converting anybody or convincing anyone of the truth of a particular religion. There are a number of reasons for this, and I get to explore this a bit in my story, but, taken together, it’s clear that this way of being, this way of doing ministry, just wouldn’t work for a conservative Christian who would feel remiss if they didn’t share the Gospel in these intimate encounters.

There is a lot more that I could say here, and a lot more that I want to explore. At the risk of committing myself to something I can’t follow up on, I do see this story as the first in a series that explores the way religion is manifest in American culture as we continue to fragment and deinstitutionalize. I’ll just have to convince some editors to get on board. 

What I’m Listening to…

The great Apple Music algorithm recommended this 2011 album by a band called Dark Mean, which, as far as I can tell, no longer exists, but I’ve been listening to it a lot. I’m disturbed by how well matched it is to my tastes, but also, you know, delighted.

What I’m Reading…

I think I might have mentioned this before, but I keep putting aside and the coming back to Uncanny Valley a memoir of working in Silicon Valley by Anna Wiener. I’m planning to finish it this weekend and finding myself feeling a little sad that it will be over. It’s been fun to wander through the heyday of our digital age with Wiener. I recommend it.

Thank you, as always, for reading.