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The Professional Chaplain as Spiritwright

by Mark LaRocca-Pitts PhD BCC

APC Forum, February 2019, Vol. 20 No. 1


Beginning with the early pioneers in healthcare chaplaincy, as exemplified by Anton Boisen and Richard Cabot, and continuing into our current profession, as exemplified by the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP) and the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), a philosophical as well as a pedagogical difference has existed between the doer of chaplaincy care and the doing of chaplaincy care (Thornton, 1970). A friend and colleague Tom Mozley, a retired ACPE supervisor, defined this divide so articulately as the difference between “the integration and transformation of the chaplain as a person versus the acquisition of knowledge and skills the chaplain needs.” However this difference is understood exactly, we often distinguish between the chaplain’s formation and skills acquisition. The goal of CPE, or as Jim Gebhart reportedly called it, “the magnificent obsession of CPE,” is to integrate these differences in the person and practice of chaplaincy care.

To help bridge this difference between personal formation and skills acquisition, the metaphor of chaplain as “spiritwright” or “master chaplain” will be advanced here. This metaphor is based on Dreyfus’ and Kelly’s understanding of a 19th century wheelwright as developed in their book, All Things Shining (2011). The analogy here is that just as the wheelwright is a master craftsman whose craft is making wheels, so the professional chaplain (i.e., spiritwright) is a master craftsman whose craft is providing spiritual care.

Spiritual Care as the Chaplain’s “Craft”
A long running debate exists in chaplaincy circles as to what it is that chaplains do: is it pastoral care or spiritual care? Brent Peery attempted to cut through this Gordian knot by describing the work chaplains do as “chaplaincy care” (Peery, 2009), which was adopted by the Association of Professional Chaplains’ (APC) Standards of Practice for Professional Chaplains. Chaplaincy care describes well the whole of what professional chaplains do. Chaplains not only provide spiritual and pastoral care but also emotional and religious care. They handle administrative duties, serve on ethics and other committees, and often function as cultural diversity specialists. Further, they may facilitate support groups and provide individual counseling. Finally, chaplains teach, write, research, and often publish. When taken together, all this work the chaplain does may be defined as chaplaincy care.
However, when it comes to the chaplain’s specific craft, the craft that sets the chaplain apart from other care-providers in an institution, the craft in which the chaplain is the specialist, and the craft to which chaplains should stake their claim within the hegemony of the holistic model in healthcare today, that craft is spiritual care. Other care-providers have lain claim to the body and the mind parts of the holistic model: chaplains need to lay claim to the spiritual part. Other practitioners teach, write, research, publish, sit on ethics committees, vie for ownership of cultural diversity, and do administration. Other care-givers provide emotional support. Clergy from outside the institution might have more of a claim than institutional chaplains for providing pastoral and religious care to those from within their communities of faith or practice. In fact, even spiritual care falls within the domain of other care-providers (Handzo, 2004; LaRocca-Pitts, 2004), just as care of body and mind is shared among disciplines. But the “spiritual care specialists,” as apparently coined by LaRocca-Pitts (2004), are chaplains. Spiritual care is the professional chaplain’s craft.
Spiritual care is care of the spirit wherein the spirit is understood as part of the human in the same way that the mind and body are parts of the human. The spirit is that part of the human that experiences connectedness with other humans, with nature, with ideas, with self, and with the Divine or Significant. This experience of connectedness gives rise to relationships: familial, friendly, social, ideological, natural, intra-personal, and sacred.  From this experience of connectedness and being-in-relationship-with questions, concerns, and insights dealing with meaning and purpose arise: Who am I? Why am I here? To whom and where do I belong? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of life?

Through this experience of connectedness, the spirit births the human quest for meaningful connections with self, others, and the Sacred or Significant. Seeking, finding, naming, sorting, categorizing, and prioritizing these meaningful connections for oneself is spirituality and when done communally within a network of outside authority and tradition is religion. Spiritual care works with and supports the care recipient’s spirituality wherein spirituality is defined as a person’s “network of meaningful connections” (LaRocca-Pitts, 2011). Crafting this spiritual care is the professional chaplain’s domain.

The 19th Century Wheelwright as Example of a Craftsman

In their book, All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Kelly develop the image of a 19th century Wheelwright as a craftsman par excellence (Dreyfus and Kelly, 2011). According to them, “the achievement of skill involves substantially more than the mere acquisition of a physical ability. Learning a skill is learning to see the world differently ... to see meaningful distinctions that others without the skill cannot.” The master craftsman is more than a highly skilled technician; he or she has pierced the veil of the ordinary to see a deeper level of meaning that others cannot. They go on to say, “the wheelwright sees meaningful distinctions in the wood—distinctions of worth and quality—that in no way find their source in him [sic].” In other words, the master craftsman does not project meaningful distinctions into the wood, but finds the meaningful distinctions inherent within the wood. According to them, “[t]he truly skilled craftsman ... understands that every piece of wood he works with is distinct and has its own personality, its own individuality.” The master craftsman does not work in a world of generalities, that all wood is the same, or that every piece of white oak or black ash is the same, but brings forth the unique and individual qualities inherent in every piece of wood. 

Every piece of wood has its own strengths and weaknesses and the master wheelwright learns to navigate and to utilize these differences to maximize the woods individuality. This craftsmanship flows out of the wheelwright’s ability to “see” the wood as discussed above and from the wheelwright’s skill to use the right tools to achieve the right outcome. For example, instead of using a band-saw, which drives ruthlessly through every resistance ignoring any and all distinctions, a master uses tools that help incorporate all the subtle virtues of the wood (Dreyfus and Kelly, 2011).

“The master’s skill for working with wood, therefore, involves intelligence and flexibility rather than rote and automatic response. This does not mean that the master is constantly planning out his [sic] actions; his ingenuity is practical, embodied, and in the moment. … Finally, and perhaps most important, the uniqueness of each situation gives a sacred dimension to the craftsmanship ... an intimate relationship. ... This sense of intimacy with the wood initiates in the woodworker a feeling of care and respect.”

 This intimacy with the wood reaches beyond the piece of wood itself and includes its origin, that is, the environment which produced the piece of the wood: the soil as well as the hydrological and geographical conditions under which the tree grew, and the climactic and seasonal conditions under which it was cut and cured. Every piece of wood has a history that shapes its individuality and the master uses this to help understand the wood’s uniqueness.
But Dreyfus and Kelly do not stop with the skill alone that is needed for a craft. They go on to talk about “a kind of feedback loop between the craftsman and the craft: each jointly cultivates the other into a state of mutual understanding and respect” (Dreyfus and Kelly, 2011). Following Aristotle, they call this dual cultivation of craftsman and craft (of doer and doing, of agent and agency) poiesis, which is the Greek word meaning “created” (Genesis 1:1). The master craftsman as flexible, intelligent, and fully present agent sees and feels the meaningful distinctions inherent in the wood that, when subjected to his embodied and practical craft as agency, will bring-forth (i.e., “create”) a wheel. According to Dreyfus and Kelly, “[t]he task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there” and then to bring them out (2011, emphasis in original). The master is more than a highly skilled and knowledgeable craftsman; the master is also a cultivated self that sees meaningful distinctions in the medium of his or her craft.

The Chaplain as Master Craftsman—as “Spiritwright”

The observant reader has already begun to see how the analogy of wheelwright applies to the professional chaplain as “spiritwright” who, as part of the process, passes through an apprenticeship and the status of journeyman on the way to master craftsman in spiritual care. During the chaplain’s apprenticeship, the chaplain begins to learn the lifelong process of engaging the “feedback loop” mentioned above between the acquisition of skills and the formation of the chaplain. As the chaplain acquires, learns, develops, and applies new knowledge and spiritual care skills, the chaplain, via the feedback loop, is transformed and cultivated. And, turning it around, as the chaplain is transformed through integration and understanding of self, the spiritual care skills, again via the feedback loop, are heightened and cultivated: the craftsman and the craft develop together synergistically.

Central to the chaplain’s apprenticeship is the experience of clinical pastoral education (CPE) during which chaplains are apprenticed with a certified CPE supervisor. Through this process, lasting one to two years, an apprentice chaplain develops skills, acquires knowledge, and hopefully begins to cultivate a self that moves beyond the generation (and projection!) of meaning from one’s self to discerning meaningful connections in the spirituality of others. CPE alone, however, does not provide all that is needed for spiritual formation of the self. Spiritual acumen also comes through participation in a spiritual (i.e., meaning-making and purpose-giving) community, whether understood traditionally as a recognized faith community or more recently as a spiritual-not religious, humanist, or even atheist community. Regardless of which type of community, there is an intentionality in and attention to spiritual (i.e., meaningful) growth. Participation in such a community also acts as an apprenticing experience in which the chaplain’s own spirit or meaning-discernment is cultivated. Many CPE programs assume this previous or concurrent participation in and formation by such a community. In addition, this intentional formation community that knows the chaplain and the chaplain’s spiritual formation will provide verification of or endorsement for the chaplain when the chaplain seeks Board Certification (BCC) from a recognized professional association (LaRocca-Pitts, 2018).

Obtaining BCC status is analogically similar to the craftsman’s “journeyman” status. Along with at least four units of CPE, 2000 hours of post-CPE employment as a chaplain, endorsement or communal verification by the chaplain’s intentional formation community, and completion of the in-depth and arduous process of board certification, the chaplain can now market him or herself as journeyman chaplain.

Moving from journeyman status to that of master for a chaplain is not a given and the process may vary from one chaplain to another. It will certainly involve continued work for many years as a chaplain providing spiritual care. It will also involve incremental peer-reviews of the chaplain’s work. It may involve further certifications, for examples, the Palliative Care and Hospice Specialty Certification or Military Specialty Certification, offered by APC, or additional degree work. Eventually, with experience and self-awareness, the chaplain becomes what might be considered a master craftsman in spiritual care, a spiritwright.

Prayer as an Example of the Chaplain’s Craft

To illustrate the analogy between master wheelwright and master spiritwright, let’s consider prayer—a tool of the chaplain much like a tool of the wheelwright. Recalling the band saw image from Dreyfus and Kelly, prayer is often used as a band saw, which cuts ruthlessly, aggressively, and invasively through all meaningful distinctions in wood or person. The band saw prayer neither recognizes the strengths or weakness in the person, nor does it use those strengths and weaknesses for the well-being of the care recipient. When the band saw prayer encounters a complex nexus, a spiritual, emotional, or existential “knot,” it does not stop to consider if the knotted nexus might add strength to the person or cause a weakness: the band saw prayer rips through it all. Prayer in the hands of an untrained amateur or even a trained professional who is not fully present, is analogous to the band saw: it can be invasive, aggressive, ruthless, and potentially cause spiritual harm.

Like the wheelwright with a piece of seasoned wood, the chaplain as spiritwright enters into relationship with the care recipient and comes to understand the unique personality and distinct individuality of the person. This often includes an awareness of the sacred dimensions of the person and results in feelings of care and respect. As part of this “intimate relationship” and before the chaplain would ever decide to pray with or for the care recipient, the chaplain uses another tool: a spiritual assessment. Through repeated use and in various situations, the chaplain’s spiritual assessment tool becomes distinctively the chaplain’s own and may be used comfortably, efficiently, effortlessly, and almost invisibly.

The spiritual assessment might explore family of origin, chosen family, faith experiences, community involvements, work place challenges, feelings, and issues surrounding their health. As the master chaplain assesses the care recipient, those distinctions or connections that are meaningful to the care recipient come to light.Following Dreyfus and Kelly above, the master chaplain does not “generate the meaning,” but has cultivated through formation of the self “the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there” in the care recipient. These meaningful connections provide insight for the chaplain into how the person experiences and expresses their spirituality. Based on this assessment, which is ongoing throughout the relationship, and the care recipient’s meaningful connections, which may change relative to each other as events unfold, the master chaplain develops a plan of care that reflects and dovetails with the care recipient’s hopes and resources and that contributes to the outcomes of the larger interdisciplinary team (VandeCreek and Lucus, 2001; Peery, 2012; LaRocca-Pitts, 2015). This is analogous to the wheelwright knowing the specific needs of the consumer, the context in which the wheels will be used, and how the wheels fit in with the rest of the coach or cart that others may be designing and building. 

If, for example, the assessment reveals that faith is a meaningful connection for the care recipient, that the care recipient uses prayer to help cope, that the faith expressions of the care recipient and chaplain are sufficiently congruent such that the support is not forced or hollow, and that the care recipient would appreciate and welcome the chaplain’s prayer, then the chaplain can offer prayer as an intervention within the plan of care.

The prayer, however, must work with the care recipient in much the same way that a wheelwright’s tools work with the wood: using “intelligence and flexibility rather than rote and automatic response” (Dreyfus and Kelly, 2011). There is a Zen proverb about a butcher whose knives never became dull. When asked why he never had to sharpen them, he replied, “Because I always cut through the empty places.” This is how a spiritwright—a master chaplain—offers prayer: the prayer moves among the spiritual connections that are already meaningful to the care recipient. Thus, as the fully present chaplain prays, the prayer affirms, utilizes, contextualizes, reframes, challenges, supports, and/or sacralizes the care recipient’s already existing meaningful connections (i.e., spirituality).


Like the wheelwrights of old, the properly trained and experienced professional chaplain is also a master craftsman at the craft of spiritual care—a “spiritwright”. Spiritual care, though only a part of the professional chaplain’s overall work, is the specific part the chaplain provides to the interdisciplinary team as the team’s specialist. Beginning with the chaplain’s training and education and continuing throughout the chaplain’s professional life, the chaplain develops a synergistic feedback loop between the formation of self and the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Engaging this process, the master chaplain learns to see meaningful distinctions in the spirituality of others that others without the spiritual care skill cannot. Being fully present and using spiritual care tools such as spiritual assessment, prayer, scripture/readings, listening, empathy, reframing, counseling, and/or ritual, the master chaplain uncovers, works with, and brings-forth the meaningful connections (i.e., spirituality) that are already present within the care recipient and that the care recipient can more fully use as a resource for their well-being. 
Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Kelly, Sean. (2011). All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to find Meaning. New York: Free Press.
Handzo, George and Koenig, Harold. (2004). “Spiritual Care: Whose Job is it Anyway?” Southern Medical Journal, 97(12), 1242-1244.
LaRocca-Pitts, Mark. (2004). “Walking the Wards as a Spiritual Specialist.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 32(3), 20, 29.
LaRocca-Pitts, Mark. (2011). “Meaningful Connections: A User-Friendly Definition of Spirituality.” APC E-News, 13(4).
LaRocca-Pitts, Mark. (2015). “The Four FACTS Assessment Tool.” Journal of Healthcare Chaplaincy, 21:2, 51-59.
LaRocca-Pitts, Mark. (2018). “Endorsement as Communal Verification.” APC-Forum: News and Ideas in Chaplaincy Care, 20:1.
Peery, Brent. (2009). “What’s in a Name?” PlainViews, 6(2).
Peery, Brent. (2012). “Outcome Oriented Chaplaincy: Intentional Caring.” In Professional Spiritual & Pastoral Care: A Practical Clergy and Chaplain’s Handbook, edited by Stephan Roberts, 342-361. Woodstock, VT: Skylights Path Publishing.
Thornton, Edward. (1970). Professional Education or Ministry: A History of Clinical Pastoral Education. Nashville: Abingdon.
VandeCreek, Larry and Lucas, Arthur (Eds.). (2001). The Discipline for Pastoral Care Giving: Foundations for Outcome Oriented Chaplaincy. New York, London, Oxford: The Haworth Pastoral Press.


Mark LaRocca-Pitts served as a professional chaplain for nearly 20 years in community outreach, acute care, and hospice settings and currently serves as Pastor in Charge at a United Methodist Church outside of Atlanta, GA. He has been BCCI® board certified since 2006 and is ordained by the United Methodist Church.  Mark received his BA and MA in Religious Studies from Indiana University, his MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, and his PhD from Harvard University. He is past president of the Georgia Society for Healthcare Chaplains and founder/host of Death Café Atlanta and a current memeber of the APC Board of Directors.