What is digital chaplaincy? I’ve had this concept in mind for many years, but not necessarily by that name. Recently I encountered a situation where I needed to call a digital chaplain. Without any options, I stepped into the role myself to support someone through a challenging online situation.
With patience and empathy, I was able to help her feel more seen and, in her words, “healed” from past wounds of online misunderstanding.
A few days later, I put out a message on Facebook for people who might be called to digital chaplaincy. It stirred up an energizing conversation. Now I want to answer a few questions my Facebook post surfaced, beginning with what this is.
I have assumed digital chaplaincy was a growing ministry vocation for quite a few years now. Given our current realities of shifting institutional forms of church and ministry and given how much of our lives depend on online engagement, I see two main directions for this work emerging.
The first is that of a chaplain who gives care, counsel or support via online or digital or hybrid means. Digital spiritual care became common or mandatory for many or most health care, military, university, hospice and even prison chaplains during the lockdown months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab responded immediately in March 2020 to the conditions of the lockdown with resources for traditional chaplains who took their work onto digital platforms. Some chaplains refer to the online work as “telechaplaincy.”
“I encounter people every week who need support for the online and digital aspects of their lives.”
The second direction is this: I encounter people every week who need support for the online and digital aspects of their lives. They need chaplains who can be with them through the digital difficulties of email, web engagement, social media, making online purchases, general tech frustrations and anxiety related to digital life. Chaplains to people in a digital world must be somewhat entrepreneurial right now. But nonprofits and other online businesses should consider hiring digital chaplains.
There are many people — especially digital immigrants (who came later in life to the online technologies and new media) and people living in isolated situations — who really need the care and support of a digital chaplain. That care could influence and nurture their spiritual lives.
My early thinking on the concept of digital chaplain
When I read Elizabeth Drescher’s 2011 book, Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, I thought extensively about what it means to be a “digital pastor” and a “networked pastor,” although I never published about either term. Around the same time I read the work by Heidi Campbell, When Religion Meets New Media, and I heard Ryan Bolger present a paper, “Ecclesiology, Ethnography and Missiology in the Network Society: Following Jesus in a World Mediated By Technology.” These academic explorations of digital culture and religion, my own entry into the new media worlds of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and my study of ministers learning in practice convinced me that ministry would continue to be mediated both digitally and in face-to-face situations.
More than a decade ago, I wrote in my field notes that the concept of a “networked pastor” captures the connections both online and offline, out of sync and in real time, locally and globally. As the world continues being reshaped by the internet and new media, I was thinking about the ways pastors, ministers, chaplains and religious leaders of many faith commitments would continue making digital connections with the people they serve.
Thus, I was surprised when I posted in early November and the idea of a “digital chaplain” landed as novel and unfamiliar to many people.
Is a digital chaplain the same as an AI chaplain?
No. Digital chaplaincy is 1) humans giving care (even in traditional ways) using digital platforms and 2) caring for people with needs in their digital or online lives. Artificial intelligence is not a substitute for either of these forms of care.
“Human empathy, responsiveness, presence and relationality cannot be imitated by artificial means.”
Human empathy, responsiveness, presence and relationality cannot be imitated by artificial means. Some AI can be useful in ministry. However, we cannot reduce the analog of human experience or spirituality to digital means. But humans most definitely can connect over digital platforms.
Am I hiring?
No. To be clear, I do not have any jobs to offer. The 3MMM Team and I often do the work of digital chaplaincy while we talk people through the challenges of getting information and making purchases. Perhaps someday we will expand the team with someone who fills that role full time.
With my question on Facebook, I was trying to appeal to the broader pastoral imagination of people called to chaplaincy and ministry.
Present examples of digital chaplaincy
Several people in the Facebook conversation offered examples of digital chaplaincy currently offered in various settings. Chaplain Ann Carol Mann said, “We’ve been offering this for a few years throughout Ascension (Health Care System). There are some full-time virtual chaplains, but in each system, there are chaplains trained for this.”
Mann continued: “During the COVID crisis, chaplains learned to use the telephone for reaching patients, families and associates. Ascension has a self-care app for associates that offers virtual spiritual care visits.”
One may access a chaplain for “Virtual Spiritual Care” by setting up an account, logging in and meeting via Zoom link. A chaplain should arrive within 10 minutes to meet you in your Zoom room.
Author, speaker and disabilities advocate Leisa Hammett observes that digital chaplaincy is likely already happening among those in the “deconstruction movement.” She also notes how much “ex-vangelicals,” among others, need “comfort and … a touchstone as they are leaving faith or evangelicalism.“
Public figures such as Kate Bowler have long held the unofficial role of digital chaplain as they wrestle openly with tough questions about life, death and suffering in one’s faith.
How is digital chaplaincy like staffing a help desk?
What if my second description or definition of digital chaplaincy is mainly like a pastoral version of the IT help desk?
There are similarities. Except many help desks are run by digital natives who have very little patience for assisting digital immigrants. And there’s rarely a help desk for many of the activities we now need to do online and in digital spaces. There is simply no one to ask except Google to help up to a certain point — and Google is not all that compassionate.
“An innovative vocation in digital chaplaincy will be for people who possess both solid relational capacities and enough technological skills to be a digital chaplain.”
One friend pointed out that people hired for IT work often prefer not to do relational work, highlighting a significant challenge for digital chaplaincy. An innovative vocation in digital chaplaincy will be for people who possess both solid relational capacities and enough technological skills to be a digital chaplain.
How is it like industrial chaplaincy?
United Methodist pastor and CPE-trained chaplain Kim Isley-Selby asked how digital chaplaincy is like industrial chaplaincy, particularly if someone is also working online.
Certainly industrial chaplaincy is a growing field for spiritual caregivers. For industries that operate mainly online, hiring digital chaplains likely would increase the care and satisfaction of their employees and possibly customers, too.
What role did COVID-19 play in accelerating and amplifying the need?
Nearly every chaplain in 2020 faced major changes to their work. Many of them became digital chaplains overnight, through necessity. Alan Bean said, “I was a hospice chaplain until COVID hit. I did some virtual work, but eventually they wanted everyone to work face-to-face. So I retired.”
Hospital chaplain Grace Powell Freeman shared this story. “During the height of the pandemic, I took one day a week from home to reach out to families of those sickest patients. I started my call by stating I was not a medical professional. I was calling to check on them. Some calls were 10 minutes, and some were an hour. These were loved ones who could not be present physically with their very sick person. These were some of my most meaningful moments.”
Ministry coach and former hospital chaplain Peggy Haymes said she also made chaplaincy phone calls in her work during the pandemic. She recalled, “Some of them were so heartbreaking.”
University chaplain Katrina Stipe Brooks said, “If tele-therapy is valuable, digital chaplaincy is as well — as was proved in the COVID-19 shutdown.”
Brooks went on to point that digital chaplaincy “has a few challenges.” She said chaplains will need to let go of “face to face contact with clients.” They will need to “take on digital platform communications.” However, after clearing that hurdle, she found digital connections “extremely effective in university chaplaincy.”
What are some novel possibilities for digital chaplaincy?
Digital chaplaincy does not need to be limited to traditional care on digital platforms or care for the digital lives of people in challenging online situations. Pastoral artist Julia Goldie Day said, for example: “I think the way in which I write about my painting is pastoral. But haven’t thought about actual literal digital chaplaincy. I would love to have more avenues for ministry.”
Retired pastor and spiritual care giver Kathy Manis Findley said: “This interest is exciting to see. I have been doing a great deal of spiritual direction, pastoral counseling and life coaching since retirement. This is digital chaplaincy by many names.”
Findley faced a series of personal medical crises, and she became a “reluctant digital chaplain” after COVID-19 further slowed her return home following an extended hospital stay. “If there is any bright side to COVID, it would be the slowing down of life, the creativity that resulted in better ways of living life … changes in our lifestyles, cleverness that led us to discover that to thrive, we needed community,” she said.
She and others have found digital chaplaincy to be a meaningful vocation as well as a gift for people who are limited by their geography or their physical ability to connect with others in face-to-face settings.
What needs to happen for ‘digital chaplaincy’ to become more of a reality?
The emerging work of digital chaplaincy is important enough that people should be trained. Theological schools and training programs that will offer a certificate in digital chaplaincy are likely to find takers. For now, it probably will remain an entrepreneurial effort — stitching together multiple kinds of expertise and calling. That is the way new things begin.
If the work is to gain traction, then seminaries, training centers, CPE programs and accrediting bodies will need to invest more time and money to expand training, anticipate ethical questions and prepare leaders. Perhaps most significantly, organizations will need to take a risk to hire and support digital chaplains for the new era of ministry.
Eileen Campbell-Reed serves as visiting associate professor of pastoral theology and care at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She is founder and host of Three Minute Ministry Mentor, co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project, and author of Pastoral Imagination: Bringing the Practice of Ministry to Life.