Becoming a Prison Chaplain
A chaplain is a minister of faith for their respective religious institution who serves as a religious community-builder in a large, mostly-secular organization. Hospitals, military bases, universities, police departments, prisons and some large businesses all offer chaplain positions to help tend to their workers’ or temporary residents’ religious needs.
One should note that “chaplain” is a non-denominational title. A chaplain can just as easily be a rabbi or Buddhist as they can a Catholic or Baptist. There may even be secular chaplains out there who serve as spiritual leaders despite a lack of religious affiliation, although they must satisfy the same religious education and endorsement criteria as anyone else.
Becoming a chaplain for a prison or similar institution is a long process, but one that can be quite rewarding. Anyone who abides by the following steps for becoming a chaplain will be well on their way to a fulfilling career:
Step 1 - Research the Requirements of the Organization You Hope to Join
While most candidate eligibility requirements may be similar between religious groups and organizations, it is important that you understand the standards and qualifications for endorsement (and ordination) before you begin the path to become a chaplain. For example, the requirements to enter the Army Chaplaincy include holding a baccalaureate degree, passing a physical exam, and receiving favorable National Agency Security Clearance. To work within the field of Corrections or Public Safety, you must submit to background checks, a credit check and a criminal history review in addition to the traditional steps mandated for endorsement and ordination. Listed below are many of the most common eligibility requirements to become a prison chaplain:
- Earn ecclesiastical approval from your religious group or denomination
- Be U.S. citizen or be granted permanent resident status
- Be at least 18 years of age
- Possess a baccalaureate degree from an accredited seminary or theological school
Step 2 - Obtain a Religious Education
The vast majority of chaplain positions require post-secondary education. Even for positions that accept a GED as a minimum education requirement, the credentials or certification necessary will involve some additional hours of accredited religious education.
A bachelor’s degree in religion, religious studies, bible studies, theology or a similar program will most likely be the baseline requirement of education in order to be eligible for a chaplain position. Many institutions like hospitals require attending seminary or achieving a master’s-level degree or higher.
This course work may not need to be completed at an official Divinity, Seminary or certified Bible school, but the program must be accredited by faith institutions and in general good standing. The Association for Biblical Higher Education, the Transnational Association for Christian Colleges and Schools and the Association of Theological Schools are all examples of boards that can approve and accredit religious degree programs.
Step 3 - Satisfy Endorsement Criteria
In order to obtain a job as a chaplain, you will need an explicit endorsement from your area of faith. Obtaining an endorsement is not a simple matter of asking permission, either. Most religious institutions require demonstrable ministry skills before they are willing to stake their reputation on your qualifications.
As such, a minimum of one to two years of serving full-time in the ministry along with ample community service hours is often required for an institution to consider endorsing you. You must typically submit references from faith mentors and those in the community in which you served. Some chaplain positions require you to be ordained with your faith institution before you are eligible, too, so you will need ordination documentation as well as an endorsement and references before they will consider you.
A final interview by the endorsing institution is often required before an endorsement will be decided upon.
Step 4 -Complete a Residency or Internship If Applicable
Not all chaplain’s positions require you to “prove yourself” in a supervised practicum setting, but a large portion of those in hospitals or state and federal prisons do. You will need to apply for a position in a training capacity before you are eligible for full-time work. The typical duration for such a requirement is one year.
Step 5 - Pass the Interview and Enter the Chaplaincy
With your endorsements in hand, the minimum credentials attained, positive references, the needed experience and satisfaction of requirements such as background checks, you now have all of the qualifications you need to serve as a full-time chaplain. You can apply to positions to which you are eligible as long as you meet the proper endorsements and supervised training requirements. After an interview, its possible that you may be selected to serve as the organization's new chaplain.