Reflections of a Humanist Chaplain

Reflections of a Humanist Chaplain March 12, 2017

By Amanda E. Parnell, D.Div, CPE, MBA, M.Ed.

It is not often that I feel entirely out of place, as though I cannot hold my own or find common thoughts. . . until I get into religious circles. I have presented many talks about my challenge with the need for labels and the struggles that can come with them. Labels are necessary in a variety of ways, and for the most part, I am fine with them.

For instance, I am a woman. This is really not a problem. It’s what I identify as and how I biologically present—and I have found that many of my expressions come from this specific identity. I am also a mom who has a thirteen-year-old daughter, which can either cause some of my fellow adults to recoil with fear, or to place some kind of reverence on me as though I should be granted sainthood because I happily parent my thirteen-year-old daughter, along with my stepchildren. Yes, there are three teenagers in my household. I am also a high school teacher, which apparently makes some people further label me a glutton for punishment. I am in a committed relationship, and for those who really require the label, I consider myself married. For those who are comfortable with the notion of a grown woman living in a committed relationship without the need for a governmental contract to maintain that commitment, I am what is now labeled a “domestic partnership.”

The challenges involved with any and all of these labels really came to a head when I decided that I wanted to go for my interfaith ordination. Hearing that I am an interfaith ordained minister can cause many of my humanist cohorts to balk at minimum, and to react with fear and distrust at most. So, why did I decide to become ordained? Well, I have always been fascinated by religion, much as I am fascinated by foreign languages. I love being able to engage in quality communication with others that honors the whole person, including his/her language and belief systems. While I am personally most comfortable with a lack of belief systems, I am also comfortable when I can see things from perspectives other than my own. And since I was adamant about earning a doctoral degree in a field that seriously interested me, I went into the study of religion/stories of origin—what is called a Divinity degree. And it sounds really impressive to say, “I have a Doctor of Divinity!”

While I was working on my degree, I decided that to make it more applicable, I would also go through the coursework for ordination. When asked what I wanted to do with this, I said, “I would love to be able to work as a chaplain.” The word “minister” literally means “to provide care for those in need.” This has always been at the heart of my learning any foreign language, including the language of religions. I wanted to be able to act with kindness and understanding, to be of service to those who were suffering after a traumatic or grief-inducing event. It would only make sense, then, for me to continue my studies to become a certified professional chaplain.

When I started working in the fields of ministry and chaplaincy, however, many of my labels began to clash with staunch belief systems. I worked with the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) for a few short weeks and was immediately ostracized because I was not Christian, I was not part of the military—although I had volunteered time at the VA hospital for a year previously, and I come from a military family—and I was a woman. As a woman, it was unacceptable for me to have been ordained in the first place. I countered each of these challenges, saying, “I know that there are many soldiers and soldiers’ families who are not Christian, and this is supposed to be an interfaith organization.” The chaplains with whom I worked specifically said that they refused to officiate any funeral service that opposed the teachings of Jesus Christ. I knew that they found my presence inappropriate to their culture and way of belief. It would have caused more harm to continue to counter them; rather, it was a better choice to calmly walk away and let it go.

I have since worked with a variety of hospice organizations, and am currently serving as a chaplain with the Bernalillo County Fire Department in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The head chaplain made it very clear that he was not opposed to a fully interfaith structure; he also made it very clear, however, that I would not be called on to lead our team in prayer at the beginning of each meeting. I have found that many of my fellow chaplains understand “interfaith” to mean different denominations of Christianity, and that they are amazed that I can speak with just as much understanding and compassion to individuals who are Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, and humanist as I can to anyone of any range of Protestant or Catholic belief and practice.

To make labels even more confusing, I have also served as the president of the Humanist Society of New Mexico. In this role, my labels as a minister and a chaplain have created quite a bit of chaos. Many members wanted to call for my immediate resignation when it came to light that I work as a chaplain and am a minister. In their minds, there is no cause for anyone who has studied any kind of religious doctrine to hold a place within a humanist society. And so, in a circle absolutely defined by a lack of belief, I have felt the need to be quiet about many parts of who I am that transcend these specific labels.

What does all this mean for a person who is struggling with leaving a specific religion for whatever reason? There is a lot of chaos, and a sense of feeling closed off or shackled. What will happen if someone finds out? Will I be accepted within a humanist community? What if there are still aspects of faith and belief systems that speak to me, even though I cannot believe in God the way I used to? Will I lose friends? Will I lose family? Will I lose more of myself and the labels with which I am most comfortable as I redefine my beliefs? Could this struggle potentially make me so angry that it jeopardizes what I consider my own morality? Will I ever feel like I am whole?

I wish I had a simple answer for you. On so many levels, as you feel more comfortable in the labels that give you a sense of positive identity and belonging, you will find positive, strong ways in which to live a life that leads you to feel more free to have fun and to be kind. On other levels, you may also struggle and feel more isolated than ever before. Religion and belief systems are tricky that way. In every environment, we tend to develop our own circles of inclusion, and in the process of defining what will be included, it is that much easier to build barriers that will exclude individuals.

My goal as a chaplain is to broaden the circle of inclusion, so that every person feels not only included, but also valued and accepted for the person s/he is, beyond labels and barriers. To me, this also means including those who have been excluded in the past. Humanism strives to work on the assumption that all of us, as human beings, have the ability to act based on moral and ethical codes of conduct without the fear of a supernatural force holding us in perpetual judgment. Yet, as humanists, we also tend to exclude those who are straddling the border.

As a chaplain, it is not my job to widen others’ circles of inclusion, but rather to be permeable in my own understanding so that I can step into a person’s circle of inclusion for the specific purpose of providing support when the earth feels like it’s going to give way under his/her feet. At the end of our interaction, it is the individual’s choice if I stay within that circle, or if I am gently nudged back to the border. As long as I can serve as a point of healing, I have achieved my goal.

Because of this, I have not minded not being fully accepted into any of the areas of religious labels. I have been grateful that I can work with an attitude of adaptability. Adaptation is necessary for the work of service, but we cannot lose our own selves in the process. It has been said that our own understanding needs to be so strong that we do not waver. I like to think of water. It seems like a weak element, one that quivers in the slightest breeze, but no matter how much it is slapped, screamed at, or slashed at in animosity, it will always go back to its original form. The well itself is rigid and can only take so much strain. It is true that water can run dry, but even in what seems like dry air, there is still water vapor.

Recovering from religion is a struggle and creates a great deal of inner turmoil that can make us feel like we’re going through some of the greatest storms we will ever face. During those times, seeking guidance and support is necessary. May the organization Recovering from Religion be like a long refreshing drink of water, helping you to gain strength from others and to revitalize your own resolve to find exactly what you need within your own identity.

Photo by Rostislav Kralik / Public Domain


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