By David Lichter
This issue of Vision is dedicated the revised Qualifications and Competencies for Certification. You will find many articles that explain the background and importance of new competencies. However, in this column I want reflect on one qualification, not competency, that remains at the core of chaplaincy for our Catholic members: endorsement by one’s local ordinary.
As you know well, the NACC was founded by the U.S. bishops in 1965 to provide support and certification for those serving the aging, ill, and dying. And the NACC mission statement highlights the nature of our ministry as ecclesial, “to continue the healing mission of Jesus in the name of the church.”
When our mission statement was carefully crafted in 2007, there were divergent opinions about whether to include “in the name of the church” in the mission statement. Wasn’t it enough to state, “continue the healing mission of Jesus”? But earlier, Bishop Dale Melczek had offered a clear perspective on what this means. “The NACC offers an enormous advantage to the church in assisting the bishops in the oversight of this vital ministry,” he wrote in 2005. “It also assures the people whom we serve that those who minister to them in behalf of Jesus and his church are grounded in Catholic theology, adhere to the ‘Ethical and Religious Directives,’ and extend the ministry of the church with the formal approval of the bishop.”
As a ministry of the church, we are not sent nor do we minister on our own. So from where does our “authority” come? Religious faith traditions answer this question in many ways. For Catholics, does it flow from our baptism and confirmation, or from our participation in the ministry of the bishop who receives his authority from his sacramental ordination? The answer is “yes.” Our vocation for ministry flows from our baptism and confirmation, and then this personal vocation still goes through a discernment and affirmation process by the church approved by the bishop(s) that is structured in some way.
Once this discernment and affirmation process is concluded, what next? The bishops’ document on lay ministry, Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, makes it clear that every local ordinary reserves the right to “review the credentials of and meet with a candidate before an appointment is made.” The terms authorization and commissioning and not endorsement are used in this document.
We realize that an endorsement is not an appointment, because, in most cases, our NACC members are not working in ecclesial institutions that are under the direct diocesan jurisdiction of the bishop. The healthcare or other institution hires our chaplains, although in some cases, a bishop might appoint a priest or other minister.
Also, endorsement is not the same as authorization. While authorization is defined in “Co-Workers,” the concept of endorsement within the church does not have a commonly accepted meaning. The Catholic Church’s lack of consensus on its meaning is not unique. Having participated some years ago on a Spiritual Care Collaborative Task Force on Endorsement, I recognize that the term is defined differently by different faith groups.
Still there are some common features: It is not a commissioning or empowerment, but more a declaration of good standing with the Church, and vouches for the disposition and or character of a person. I believe most bishops and religious superiors would understand endorsement in this way. The bishop recognizes the NACC certification process as the “discernment and affirmation process” that provides assurance that our member is qualified to minister in this specialized ministry in the name of the church. His (or the religious superior’s, in the case of religious) endorsement acknowledges the NACC process and affirms that this person is “in good standing” and has the “disposition and character” to serve. In most cases he relies on the recommendation of the person’s pastor or a priest in active ministry, and, hopefully more often the case, will personally meet with our member to get to know him/her whenever possible.
The NACC’s connections to the Church are manifold. These include: the approval of our Qualifications and Competencies by the USCCB Subcommittee on Certification of Ecclesial Ministry and Service; the presence of Bishop Donald Hying as our USCCB Episcopal liaison; our Episcopal Advisory Council that meets annually with Bishop Hying and me at the November USCCB Assembly; our regular communication to all the bishops through Vision; our annual World Day of the Sick letter; the endorsement by the local ordinary or religious community leader of all our board; certified chaplains; and our invitation to the local ordinary or his representative to our NACC national conferences.
We continue to build those connections to our faith body. Some local ordinaries or their representatives meet with groups of NACC members. It is also heartening and affirming when we receive from a bishop, along with an endorsement letter, a note of appreciation for this member’s ministry and of thanks to the NACC for its role in advancing this ecclesial ministry.
How can you strengthen your own connection to the Church and its leaders? I suggest you write to and/or make an appointment with your bishop or his delegate to introduce yourself and share your ministry. Several of you who live in a diocese could make a group appointment, even for 15 minutes, to meet with your bishop, introduce yourselves and where you minister, and let him know the blessings of your ministry. What about sending a card and letter to him during Pastoral Care Week with a message about your ministry?
As you might know, the new Spiritual Care Association does not include endorsement by a religious body as essential to board certification. As the SCA rationale explains, “This endorsement is not an evidence-based indicator of the person’s competency as a chaplain. Faith group endorsement is a relationship between a chaplain and his or her religious/spiritual/existential community. It is largely a Christian structure that is not practiced by most non-Christian groups.”
However, our other chaplaincy Strategic Partners — ACPE, APC, CASC, and NAJC — remain committed to the qualification that endorsement of one’s faith body (as a formal expression of one’s spirituality) remains essential to the chaplaincy profession.
What I have heard from our Episcopal Advisory Council is that your ministry and the mission of NACC are valuable and important to the mission of the church. Let us continue “the healing ministry of Jesus in the name of the church.”
Blessings on your ministry!