A Brief History of the Association of Professional Chaplains

Past Presidents

The vision for an organization for professional chaplains was first imagined in the summer of 1942. Rev. Russell L. Dicks, then chaplain at Wesley Memorial Hospital in Chicago, invited general hospital chaplains to meet with him at the annual meeting of the American Protestant Hospital Association (APHA) in Philadelphia in September of 1946. Sixteen responded and began to engage in conversation about how developing collegial relationships could strengthen their ministry in their institutions. From this first gathering, the Association of Protestant Hospital Chaplains was formed and Chaplain Dicks served as the first president. With now approximately 4,000 members, the APC is proud of its history and heritage and the commitment of many gifted leaders to create a way for the strengthening of spiritual care services, marked by professionalism and service, which continues even today.

The roots of this early association emerged even earlier in 1939 when Dicks addressed the APHA Annual Convention on the topic, “The Work of the Chaplain in the General Hospital.” While at Massachusetts General, Russell Dicks was introduced to Richard Cabot, MD who took a serious interest in Dick’s ministry. Cabot one day said of Dicks, ‘This is a man who writes down his prayers with patients; we should listen to him.’ Together they co-authored the pioneering book in 1936, “The Art of Ministering to The Sick.”

Dicks gained respect from the medical community and was appointed chair of the APHA Commission to Study Religious Work in Hospitals. The commission surveyed general hospitals and learned that only 18 had full-time chaplains in 1940. By 1945 a similar survey reported that number had increased to 38, revealing that only 8% of the 465 hospitals responding employed chaplains. By 1945, the commission had developed a series of recommendations to the APHA to amend its constitution and by-laws to provide for a chaplain’s section. Though World War II required the cancellation of the meeting, the proposals were later adopted at the 1946 convention and the next day the Chaplains’ Section of the APHA was organized. In 1947, the incoming president, Chaplain Leicester Potter, first suggested the need for standards and certification. By 1950, standards were adopted which included two units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), and the certification process officially began.

At about the same time hospital chaplains began conversing, another group of chaplains employed in psychiatric hospitals was organized at the May, 1948 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Twenty-six chaplains, who were primarily CPE supervisors, formed the Association of Mental Hospital Chaplains (AMHC) with Chaplain J. Obert Kempson of South Carolina State Hospital in Columbia, SC as its first president. By 1968, this association had created standards and began to certify chaplains on an interfaith basis, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant, with CPE required as defined by the three faith groups. This was the first inter-faith certification process, with all committees having representatives across faith groups.

In the 1960s, with the rise of Community Mental Health Centers, the AMHC together with other groups developed “Guidelines for Clergy Serving in Comprehensive Community Mental Health Centers’ (CCMHC). A name change in the early 1970s to the Association of Mental Health Clergy expanded their membership and invited participation from local clergy in parishes. By 1976, the AMHC had grown to over 500 members and was able to support a part-time executive director, Rev. George Doebler, who served in this role for 22 years.

Meanwhile, by 1962, the Association of Protestant Hospital Chaplains was renamed the Chaplains’ Division of the APHA, growing a bit more independent of the APHA. In 1968, the Chaplain’s Division was renamed the College of Chaplains, to reflect growing clarity about the strength and relevance of the organization in the health care field, its name chosen primarily because it was a familiar organizational term for many in the medical profession. In its first 20 years, membership grew to 500. Within four years following the name change to the College of Chaplains, membership grew dramatically to 900. By 1971, with the offer of financial assistance from the APHA, the association called its first full-time executive director, The Rev. Charles Phillips who quickly provided leadership which enabled the College to expand its membership and services.

The college grew rapidly and strengthened standards of “certification” as well as advocating issues and concerns of chaplains in the field of health care — primarily general medical and long term care. The Association of Clinical Pastoral Education was seen as the primary provider of ‘clinical’ training in competencies related to professional chaplaincy.

In the 1960s the college encouraged the certification of women in the profession of chaplaincy. And by the 1970s Catholic sisters began to seek certification, feeling that the college offered a standard of equality in ministry. Military chaplains in medical facilities also joined. The college and the AMHC also began in the 1970s to seek validation from the Commission for Hospital Accreditation to create hospital standards for chaplaincy. This effort was narrowly defeated, but was raised again in the 80’s and passed, so that hospitals were obliged to provide some process for meeting the spiritual needs of patients. An added factor in the increasing number of chaplains in hospitals was the Medicare inclusion of chaplains among those for whom it would reimburse hospitals. Later, it also approved a similar program for the ministry of residents in CPE programs.

By the 1980s, our society was experiencing the diminished role of institutions of public psychiatry and alternative treatment centers and membership in the AMHC gradually fell by 40%. Realizing the presence of common goals and the benefits of sharing resources, the College of Chaplains in 1993 invited the AMHC to consider working together. A transition team was formed which eventually brought together these two organizations at the annual conference in 1998 in Portland, Oregon. The AMHC and the College of Chaplains merged to form the current Association of Professional Chaplains.

Various faith groups had also begun working more closely together to strengthen standards and opportunities for chaplaincy in many settings. The Congress on Ministry in Specialized Settings (COMISS) was begun in 1978 and established a cooperative working relationship among many pastoral care cognate groups and denominational representatives. In 1988, a major “dialogue,” sponsored by COMISS, was held with leaders of various faith groups and the members of the cognate groups serving in specialized ministries. This strengthened ties and relationships that have continued to grow.

In 1996, the College of Chaplains separated from its parent group, the APHA, to become an independent professional organization, creating the flexibility to develop its agenda in working closer with other cognate groups and committing to its vision of becoming more interfaith and multicultural. In the early days, only chaplains serving in institutions of the APHA were encouraged to become certified, then called “fellows” of the college. With a break from Protestant roots, today persons from all faiths and cultures are invited to become board certified chaplains.

In just over a half century, chaplaincy has become a highly recognized and respected profession. Chaplaincy associations, which were initially established to create a sense of identity and accountability, have grown into well organized professional groups that command the respect of professionals in all fields. Barriers that once divided gender, ethnic, race and religious groupings in professional groups have been confronted. Today membership in APC is representative of a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups and invites those in the ministry of chaplaincy to become a part of this exciting organization.