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The Chaplaincy Institute: Pioneering Interfaith Ministry

Coming from the Heart

The Chaplaincy Institute: Pioneering Interfaith Ministry 

by John R. Mabry

Rabbi Joseph Gelberman founded the first interfaith seminary in 1981 in New York City, and since then like institutions have multiplied, particularly in North America, Europe and Australia. Their focus breaks away from the traditional academic seminary. This profile of Chaplaincy Institute by John Mabry, ordained in the United Church of Christ and instructor in spiritual care at the Institute, highlights the differences. Interfaith seminaries have been critiqued for their eclecticism and ‘syncretism,’ but clearly they are filling an often unmet need that goes to the heart of pastoral ministry.

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Rev. Gina Rose Halprin, founder of the Chaplaincy Institute, with a student – Photo: Chaplaincy Institut

Rev. Gina Rose Halprin, founder of the Chaplaincy Institute, with a student – Photo: Chaplaincy Institut

Andrea paused at the doorway to the hospital room to gather her thoughts. Her last patient had been a Sunni Muslim grandmother who was scared of what her tests might say. This next patient is an atheist who may or may not want to talk to her. After that, she has a Jewish person, and a Seventh Day Adventist. While that kind of rapid-paced paradigm-shifting might cause vertigo in some chaplains, it’s all par for the course for Andrea and others who were trained at the Chaplaincy Institute, an interfaith seminary in Berkeley, California.

Formed in 1999 by the Rev. Gina Rose Halpern, the Chaplaincy Institute (affectionately known as “ChI”) was envisioned from the very first as a school that would do things a little differently. While most seminaries train “specialists” – people who specialize in offering spiritual care to people belonging to their own religious tradition, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant Christian, or Jewish or Muslim – the Chaplaincy Institute has always focused on training “generalists,” people who are prepared to give effective spiritual care to people of many spiritual traditions, or none.

From the beginning Rev. Halpern focused on alternative pedagogical methods, believing that truly integrated learning draws on both right- and left-brain approaches. So while traditional seminaries focus on academics, the Chaplaincy Institute balances intellectual rigor with other forms of intelligence, emphasizing art, experiential learning, and emotional, relational interaction with people of various faith traditions.


 The Chaplaincy Institute uses the word “interfaith” for their approach, even though there is some imprecision in exactly what the word means. For ChI students, it has two main meanings. About half the students at the Chaplaincy Institute are rooted in one particular faith tradition, but want to learn to minister effectively to people of all faiths – their ministry is “interfaith.” The other half of the student body are spiritually eclectic people, having multi-faith identities or identifying as “spiritual but not religious” – their lived spirituality is “interfaith.” It is the dynamism between these points that creates a fertile environment for learning. By engaging one’s own beliefs and considering the worldviews of others, students see those they will minister to in the future, reflected in their student colleagues.

The Chaplaincy Institute curriculum focuses on the wisdom of many faith traditions, delving into comparative theology and experiencing first hand the worship and spiritual practices of many traditions. Students tend to their own spiritual formation through spiritual practice, required spiritual direction, and deep, healing work in spiritual psychology. Students are prepared for ministry through classes in pastoral care, public speaking, ritual, social action, and engaged field work.

This approach has been a particular blessing to people who feel called to ministry but don’t feel they belong or fit into any one particular faith community. The Chaplaincy Institute is unique in welcoming all people, regardless of whether they practice a particular spiritual tradition or not; it takes seriously the call upon their hearts to ordained ministry. For some, the Chaplaincy Institute provides the first spiritual community in which they have ever felt completely at home, and for others it is a safe place to heal from the wounds left by spiritual communities in their past.

Members of the Chaplaincy Institute community singing and marching their way down the aisles at the Salt Lake City Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2015 – Photo: Chaplaincy Institute

Members of the Chaplaincy Institute community singing and marching their way down the aisles at the Salt Lake City Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2015 – Photo: Chaplaincy Institute

The Chaplaincy Institute is located in the Gourmet Ghetto neighborhood of North Berkeley, just a stone’s throw from the Graduate Theological Union. This has allowed students to share in the rich theological learning atmosphere of this region, and there has been much fertile cross-pollenization between ChI and the more traditional schools. Several MDiv (Master of Divinity) students from various seminaries have studied at ChI – recognizing that ChI offers a kind of hands-on, spiritually engaged education they weren’t finding at their own schools.

In 2013 ChI entered into a partnership with Starr King School for Ministry, the Unitarian-Universalist seminary at the GTU. Starr King students can fulfill part of their requirements by studying at ChI, while ChI students can apply their units toward an MDiv at Starr King should they choose to pursue one.

Still Being Grown, Starting with Chaplaincy

As a small, recently founded school, the Chaplaincy Institute is not yet accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges or the Association of Theological Schools, but has been fortunate in that the Association of Professional Chaplains has recognized the value of the ministerial preparation afforded by the Chaplaincy Institute, and recognizes the interfaith ordination offered by the school’s congregation of alumnae, faculty, friends, and benefactors. Becoming a board-certified chaplain is not easy to accomplish for anyone, but the Chaplaincy Institute students have won the admiration and respect of the APC.

They have also gained the respect and devotion of employers. Since spiritual care is required by law in many states (including California), hospital and hospital administrators have discovered that it’s more cost effective to hire one interfaith chaplain than it is to hire a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a rabbi, an imam, and so on. Several years ago, when ChI conducted a study of its alumnae, it discovered that 70 percent of its graduates were currently employed as hospital or hospice chaplains.

A painting by Gina Rose Halprin – Photo: Chaplaincy Institute  

A painting by Gina Rose Halprin – Photo: Chaplaincy Institute  

About ten years ago, the Chaplaincy Institute branched out, training not just chaplains but spiritual directors as well. While there are approximately 250 spiritual direction training programs in the United States today, the vast majority of these train people of a single tradition to be spiritual guides for others in their same tradition. The Interfaith Spiritual Direction Certificate Program at the Chaplaincy Institute pioneered the field of offering effective spiritual guidance “across traditions,” to people of every faith or none.

The school is still growing. The Chaplaincy Institute recently began a certificate program in spiritual psychology and is about to test a new program in eco-chaplaincy. The faculty and administration is also looking to expand its current chaplaincy program from one year to three, eventually offering three levels of certificates, each building on the mastery of the one previous. The first certificate (Interfaith Studies) will focus on world religions and spiritual formation – designed specifically for those just starting out in their education as well as those wanting to explore and deepen their own spirituality. After completion of this certificate, students may continue to the second certificate (Interfaith Ministry) which will focus on the theory and hands-on practice of ministry in various contexts. Finishing this certificate, students may complete a third certificate (Applied Ministry) consisting of fieldwork, specialized ministerial training, and Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

The Chaplaincy Institute believes it is on the vanguard of a significant shift in ministerial training. It is pioneering the kind of important, multi-faith, engaged education that more established seminaries are just beginning to tune into. ChI students are also bringing their ministries into bold and creative places, such as organizing events for interreligious dialogue and understanding, animal chaplaincy, corporate chaplaincy, social-movement chaplaincy (supporting the spiritual care needs of advocates working to house the homeless or to stand in solidarity at Standing Rock, and so on), exploring the needs of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) people and many other new forms of ministry. 

Header Photo: Chaplaincy Institute