Union Theological Seminary (UTS) has a long history of preparing divinity students to enter the chaplaincy field through academic coursework as well as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programs. The Chaplaincy Concentration for MDiv students, which launched in 2019, represents a fruition of Union’s longstanding commitment to social justice, rigorous scholarship, and interreligious engagement.
Individuals like Union graduate and professor, Ann Ulanov, who pioneered the field of study of psychology and religion, and well-established collaborations with Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), are emblematic of these deep commitments. Union’s unwavering dedication to these ideals naturally gives rise to programs like the Chaplaincy Concentration, enrolling a large number of students pursuing chaplaincy careers in interreligious contexts.
In recent years, Union has expanded its educational offerings to include mid-career chaplains, spiritual care leaders, and healthcare clinicians looking to deepen their understanding of the work of chaplains.
One of the main ways it has done so is through its Supplemental Course (SU) program. These short courses, often featuring leading practitioners and faculty from other institutions, provide learning opportunities that explore emerging issues and deepen the breadth of Union’s education program. Offered in online and in-person formats, they are taken by Union students, Union alums, and members of the broader public. This past year, chaplaincy and spiritual care course topics included Death and Dying in Islam: How Best to Care For Muslim Patients, Organizational Leadership Competencies: Best Practices for Chaplains, Spiritual Care Leaders, and Change Agents, and Chaplaincy, and Building a Movement in Poor Communities.
Chaplaincy and Healthcare Leadership: Bedside, Break-room, Boardroom, and Everywhere in Between, provided a unique opportunity for current and aspiring chaplains and healthcare leaders to better understand the “impact factor” of chaplains (and spiritual care programming more broadly), and how they can be optimized to promote quality of care, access, and cost imperatives. Students, which included seminarians, spiritual care directors, and early career and veteran chaplains, were provided a unique opportunity to engage in complex and critical conversations with leaders of some of the world’s most prominent hospitals and healthcare systems.
“I’ve consistently seen the profound influence that chaplaincy brings to healthcare,” said Dr. Richard J. Gannotta, Course Instructor. “In my opinion, its value has often been overlooked.” Dr. Gannotta’s extensive leadership experience includes serving as the CEO of the University of California Irvine Health System, Senior Vice President of Hospitals at NYC Health + Hospitals in New York, and roles as President of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Duke Raleigh Hospital within the Duke University Health System, and North Carolina’s Wake Med Health & Hospitals.
“It was an interesting challenge for me because we had been so used to change, dealing with so much change in healthcare, I was really happy to think strategically about what I do on a day to day basis with my team and how we [make an] impact,” said David Cowell, MDiv ‘94, one of the course’s guest speakers and Vice President of Mission Integration at Dignity Health in Northern California.
In particular, this course focused on better preparing chaplains at all levels to express the value of their work as chaplains in healthcare settings with evaluative and detailed reporting and successful conversations with leaders and professionals in the administrative arm of their hospitals.
“This course emphasized the need for chaplains to articulate the significance of their roles in healthcare,” Gannotta noted. “Their contribution isn’t just clinical; it spans spiritual and financial domains as well. Embracing this holistic perspective can position an organization to be more competitive.”
“The aim was clear: to highlight the comprehensive benefits chaplains and chaplaincy programs offer. From enhancing patient care on clinical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels to emphasizing their strategic importance to hospital administration, especially in improving patient satisfaction, clinical outcomes, and even impacting financial stability through reduced clinical turnover,” said Gannotta.
Other speakers included prominent healthcare executives such as Tom Manion, Dr. Paul Coyne, Dr. Seanna Thompson, and Dr. John Pearson.
“As a mission integration leader, I have the opportunity to engage in a lot of conversations about operations, how missions and values are integrated into all we do with delivering outstanding patient care, keeping patients at the center of all we do,” said Cowell,” but hospitals are a behemoth and take time to understand fully, so I feel like I’ve gotten better at what I do and was honored to be ask to participate.”
Of the students in the course, Cowell also shared, “ it was nice to be with people who were intentional and really seeking out this class. It was a unique setting of ministry, progressive, healthcare workers trying to be there for their hospital communities. I really appreciate the attitude of these students.”
“We tried to give ‘what it’s like’ scenarios to students – many of whom worked in healthcare and had similar stories.” Said Cowell. “One student explained a concept on how to flatten hierarchy in delivering patient care in engaging employees, which gave me some food for thought on how to engage leadership across disciples to solve problems for the benefit of patient care. I learned a lot, and they were really outstanding students with ideas about patient care.”
When students completed the course, the expectation was to be better prepared to express the value of their work as chaplains in healthcare settings with evaluative and detailed reporting and successful conversations with leaders and professionals in the administrative arm of their hospitals.
“For me, there was a long term impact on the things I presented and the feedback on the questions I was getting,” said Cowell. It was “such an opportunity for exchange. The learning model and the growth mindset that framed this entire conversation was something that I walked away with and have sort of applied the outlines of it to the work with my own team. It’s really important for me to continue to find ways to lift them up, support their growth, and help them become the best leaders/chaplains they can be.”
Union has an exciting lineup of SU offerings planned for next year. Chaplaincy and spiritual care offerings include The Union of Ati Yoga and Chaplaincy to be taught in person on October 20-21 by Justin von Bujdoss. It will introduce learners to a distilled practical introduction to Ati Yoga meditation practice as a supportive technique for chaplains, spiritual caregivers, or anyone interested in releasing themselves from the hardness of biases, assumptions and projections. Additional plans are in the works to offer additional SU courses in partnership with the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.