The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab

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The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab brings chaplaincy leaders, theological educators, clinical educators, and social scientists into a research-based conversation about the state of chaplaincy and spiritual care. Driving our work are questions about how, in the midst of changes in the American religious landscape, spiritual caregivers can do their best work. We aim to improve how chaplains are trained, how they work with diverse individuals (including those with no religious or spiritual backgrounds), and how chaplaincy and spiritual care coheres as a professional field.

Across the United States airports and seaports, at racetracks and at national parks, in universities and in hospitals, in correctional facilities and in the halls of Congress, in the military and among the unhoused, chaplains are offering spiritual care. The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab (the Lab) seeks to support, connect, and professionalize chaplains in all contexts in which they do their work. Dr. Michael Skaggs, Executive Director of the Lab, highlights the diverse work of a chaplain in the 21st century: “No matter the context, being a chaplain is being the person needed at that moment. That means a lot of different things. It’s the work of being with people in crisis, it’s the work of just listening, it’s the work of setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot. It is showing up and asking what is needed. Winnifred Sullivan calls this a ‘ministry of presence,’ and that takes a lot of different forms.” [1]


Interfaith encounter is inherent in chaplaincy. As American religious life has become increasingly diverse and de-institutionalized, chaplains are uniquely positioned to engage in spiritual care with individuals outside of formal religious institutions and communities. Chaplains do their work outside of contexts and spaces conventionally imagined as religious, on the institutional edges of religious and public life. Their encounters are not bound by the walls of a church or temple, nor necessarily by an intention of gathering for a religious purpose. With such a variety of needs, encounters, and contexts of spiritual care, Skaggs emphasizes that “it is not the mission of the Lab to impose one model on everybody; we look for ways to support all kinds of chaplains.” The Lab’s mission to support, connect, and professionalize chaplains across contexts and traditions, is an ambitious undertaking, during a time of unprecedented diversity and de-institutionalization within the United States.


The Lab began in 2018 out of Transforming Chaplaincy, a think tank that promotes research literacy in chaplaincy to improve patient outcomes. The founder of the Lab, Dr. Wendy Cadge, is also the founder and former co-director of the Transforming Chaplaincy project. While working on Transforming Chaplaincy, it became apparent to Cadge and others that there was a need and an interest to evaluate and professionalize chaplaincy more broadly, and a need to connect chaplains across sectors. The Lab works towards these goals by “promoting innovative projects in spiritual care; centralizing resources on research, education, credentialing, and professional associations; hosting online events that are free and open to the public; and producing original research.” [2]


One major aspect of 21st century chaplaincy is evaluating chaplaincy in light of the demographic shifts of race and religion in the United States. In centering research, The Lab is bringing a transformative and novel approach to identifying and responding to the needs of chaplains and those they serve, across sectors. Chaplains are often working in spaces far more diverse than their own religious tradition. As Skaggs explains, “Part of our work is asking: how can chaplains be more attentive to and reflective of demographic shifts in American life? Chaplaincy was historically, by the numbers, mostly white, male, and Christian, and we know that the religious makeup of the United States much, much more than that today.” One of the reasons for this misalignment, of chaplains and the environments they serve, is the chaplaincy pipeline: most chaplains are trained at institutions of higher education and theological schools that are historically embedded in white Protestant norms and frameworks.

The Lab researches these chaplaincy pipelines and the training and curriculum for chaplains in an effort to determine who chaplains are, what training they receive, and if that training prepares them for their work in an increasingly diverse United States.

The extent to which individuals training to be chaplains are prepared, through their graduate theological education, for the work they are hired to do is an open question particularly around questions of engagement across difference. While courses about interfaith/interreligious issues have been added to some curriculum, rarely are interreligious studies and chaplaincy education integrated. [3]

This is part of what Skaggs calls the Lab’s “ongoing process of identifying needs in the field of chaplaincy.”

One such need, is the need to better understand the training chaplains receive through graduate theological education. To that end, the Lab partnered with Boston University’s School of Theology, with support from the Luce Foundation, to examine the effectiveness of training, curriculum, and outcomes of the educational program. The Lab interviewed multiple stakeholders about various issues: current students about their expectations, goals and instruction; instructors and administrators about curriculum and instruction; chaplain alumni about the effectiveness and gaps in their education and training; and employers about the skills they look for in candidates and the needs of their chaplains.

Much of the Lab’s work of supporting chaplains is done through groundbreaking research and innovation on institutional levels. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the United States, The Lab responded to the immediate day-to-day needs of chaplains: “We had the ability to respond in the moment, we shifted our day-to-day from the big picture to what we can do today for chaplains,” Skaggs explained. Since its founding, the Lab has compiled, created, and shared resources, and hosted webinars. During the coronavirus pandemic, this allowed the Lab to shift its day-to-day operations to responding to the immediate needs of chaplains.

The Lab was able to tailor its extensive resources and create new resources for chaplains during COVID-19; for example, the Lab published a free downloadable e-book called, “Caring for Those Who Care” which offered stories from across the country, strategies for caring for staff, and resources and activities to support patients and staff. On March 17,2020, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States began to climb and closings and restrictions on public life, social services, and private business spread across the country, the Lab hosted a virtual town hall for chaplains working in the midst of the coronavirus. Entitled “Caring for the Caregiver”, chaplains were invited to process and share together. “Caring for the Caregiver” continued as a weekly webinar through May 2020, and additional webinars were held each week relating directly to care in the age of COVID-19.

While The Lab was uniquely situated to respond in the moment to meet some of the immediate needs of chaplains, Skaggs recognizes that this work must ultimately address systematic change: “The current health crisis came along and exposed that the structures that chaplains need for support are not as strong as they should be. What we are looking to do now is determine how we can drive support at the structural level so when the next crisis comes, chaplains can be better prepared and supported to respond.” The ongoing research, resources, and networks provided by the Lab allows chaplains to be more responsive, better supported, and better equipped for providing spiritual care, no matter where they do their work.

[1] Dr. Michael Skaggs. Phone interview with author. 18 June 2020.

[2] Cadge, Wendy and Michael Skaggs. "Executive Summary". Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. 2018. Accessed 15 July 2020

[3] Cadge, Wendy, Michael Skaggs, Zoë Pringle. "Sparking Practical Innovation in Spiritual Care How the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab Supports the Growth of a Profession". Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. June 2020.