A Book Review of Transforming Chaplaincy: The George Fitchett Reader

Steve Nolan and Annelieke Ramen, Eds., Foreword by Wendy Cadge

Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2021. 250 pp. 

by Raymond J. Lawrence, General Secretary


Book cover - Transforming Chaplaincy  The first thing to note about this monograph is that it consists of an anthology of ten previously published papers by George Fitchett and his colleagues over the past quarter-century. The ten papers are followed by some thirty pages of commentary and an appendix. Steve Nolan and Annelieke Damen are co-editors and authors of the introduction. The index indicates that this collection from the past is inspired by the same people who have been linked to Fitchett over several decades: Harold Koenig, David Fleenor, Kenneth Pargament, George Handzo, Larry VandeCreek, Daniel Grossoehme, and of course, others of a similar feather.

On the back cover, Kenneth Pargament gives high praise to the collection, and as one would expect, Pargament is also indexed in each of the ten articles published. Daniel Grossoehme also gives a rave review of the collection, which is understandable since he is one of the several co-authors with Fitchett. However, John Swinton, University of Aberdeen’s Pastoral Professor, writes a more credible endorsement because he is never cited in the text. Fitchett, of course, did restrain himself, blessedly, from praising his collection of essays amongst these back-cover blurbs. But he might just as well have. There is not much new here in this collection. It is simply a retrospective tribute to the wisdom of George Fitchett.

Though I did not count, “spiritual” is probably the most-used word in this collection of essays, and phrases such as “spiritually based,” “spiritually mature,” “spiritual struggle,” “spiritual concerns,” “spiritual assessment,” and the like, saturate this collection from start to finish. What is missing throughout is a cogent definition of spiritual. One does get a vague idea of what spiritual might signify, but “vague” is the determinative adjective. I have not seen Fitchett or anyone else define the boundaries of spirituality as currently used either in this monograph or in the broader culture. It is such an evanescent category that it belies the definition. Has anyone ever disclosed the boundaries of the concept of spirituality as it is currently employed in the ambient culture? I do not think we would find a consensus, except among a subgroup of those who believe in ghosts. From a personal perspective, I can affirm that if I overheard someone at a cocktail party say that I was a “spiritual person,” that my skin would crawl. I would try to find a way to disabuse that person of such a characterization of me.

When Norman O. Brown declared “good-bye Holy Ghost, veni creator spiritus,” he resorted to Latin for a good reason. To capture the divine spirit in our current vernacular, English, is not an assignment likely to succeed. Since we don’t speak the dead language of Latin, it provides an aura of the mysterious, which connotes another level of consciousness, communicating what eludes us and cannot entirely be grasped. That, I believe, is precisely Brown’s point. He could just as well have said, “good-bye Holy Ghost, come Holy Spirit,” but that would have been a failed communication. In current English, spirit and spiritual are mostly washed-up words with no potency and no boundary, except for specific out-of-the-way contexts. Paul Tillich understood that. He asserted that the only authentic use of spirit in current English usage is when we refer, for example, to a horse being “spirited.” Spirited is a spin-off of the word spiritual, and it is indeed spun way off. And so, back to the cocktail party, if someone referred to me as spirited, the opposite of spiritless, I would have been immensely flattered. 

Fitchett and company, who toss around spiritual with great generosity, are thus failing to communicate. Or they are sharing so many innuendoes simultaneously that the communication is garbled. They tossed around spiritual and spirituality as if the current populace knew very well what the words refer to and as if they were a commodity that could be picked up for a few dollars at Walmart or CVS. Yet, despite its extensive and casual usage, there exists no consensus on precisely what the concept connotes. Thus, the door is wide open for the use of “spiritual, not religious,” yet another widely used cliché, which is undefined and never elucidated —and under suspicion of meaning nothing at all. I suspect there is no “there” there.

Since the focus of this collection of old essays is “transforming chaplaincy,” it seems that the authors would have distinguished between what chaplaincy has been and what is coming into being once transformed. If that is what they were attempting, which the title suggests, they failed utterly. To transform means to change—hopefully for the better—and become something new and more promising. However, the metaphor does not describe what was before or what is now coming into being. It is as if Fitchett lives in the eternal now with no past and no future. 

Anton T. Boisen The labels “chapel” and therefore “chaplaincy” seem to have begun in medieval times, chapels then being places of refuge. In 1925 Anton Boisen revolutionized chaplaincy by making it “clinical and pastoral,” meaning attending with care to the “body in bed.” Klínē is Greek for bed and the root word for clinical. The pastoral dimension connotes the overall care that a shepherd has for the sheep. Boisen’s move was radical. It oriented chaplains to focus directly on the patient and the patient’s body rather than on prayers, lessons, catechisms, and mini-sermons. That was a radically new focus. By “body in bed,” Boisen did not mean flesh and blood so much as personhood and history– or soul. Flesh and blood was left to the physicians.

The soul is, of course, another problematic metaphor since no one has ever seen or measured a soul. However, unlike spiritual, the soul has found a new life that neither Plato nor the Bible seems to have imagined. The African-American community has imbued soul with new definition and vitality, as in soul food. The same energy that spirit once carried in ancient times but no longer does.

In this book, Fitchett emphasizes tables and diagrams, with arrows pointing to such things as meaning, faith, and peace, all punctuated with labels and statistics. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to comprehend the significance of such delineations. Instead, it brought back memories of my chemistry class in high school. Amongst Fitchett’s ten published essays in this book, I counted thirty such redundant tables.

The Boisen movement has lasted almost a century, but in recent decades has suffered a serious decline and a loss of focus, the causes of which beg close examination. In recent decades Fitchett has become the de facto voice for the bulk of clinical chaplaincy while turning it into something Boisen would not recognize if he were to return from his grave, and if he did, he would aggressively repudiate it. Boisen viewed himself as a pastoral psychotherapist and assuredly not as a peddler of either religion or spirituality.

As I read Steve Nolan and Annelieke Damen’s “Introduction,” I noted that they heaped considerable praise on Fitchett. They also asserted that the book is “most definitely not a retrospective…nor is it an homage to a man who has done more than most to develop his profession.” However, I believe they might have done better had they been more retrospective. It is important to know from whence one came to understand where one is. Nolan and Damen stated that they reviewed 120 articles and book chapters authored by Fitchett and boiled them down to ten chapters for incorporation into this book. They assert that these ten chapters are the best representation of Fitchett’s message. 

In the Introduction, Nolan and Damen make the claim that Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)… “enables aspiring chaplains to process their faith and so better equip themselves to offer spiritual care…”. The sentence surely made Boisen roll over in his grave. First of all, Boisen created “CPT,” Clinical Pastoral Training, which was in later generations considered too clinical and was thus modified to “CPE” for Clinical Pastoral Education. More importantly, Boisen never trained any pastors to offer “spiritual care.” Boisen trained clergy in the skills of pastoral psychotherapy. We can and should pardon the ignorance of Nolan and Damen on this matter, Europeans that they are, and once removed from the American evolution of Boisen’s clinical pastoral training. But we cannot allow Fitchett to continue to distribute this false claim publicly without a challenge.

Then on the same page (xxi), Nolan and Damen make an even more astonishing claim, as they write:

“The idea that chaplains might write up and publish case studies of their work, for the purpose of developing the profession through teaching and research, may seem obvious now, but this is so only because of visionary work initiated by Fitchett.” 

What?! Someone should have caught this faux pax. Anton Boisen initiated the novel approach of working with chaplains’ case studies in 1925 before Fitchett was even a gleam in his mother’s eye. The praise of Fitchett for inventing the case method is erroneous to the point of being humorous.* However, to his credit, Fitchett knows better and later contradicts Nolan and Damen, writing that “case studies were central to what Anton Boisen, a founder of modern chaplaincy and clinical pastoral education….” (p.124, emphasis is mine.) It appears that Nolan and Damen never read the texts they edited and  lauded. Furthermore, as pertains to Boisen and clinical pastoral training, Boisen was “the founder,” not “a founder.” Of course, Richard Cabot was indispensable to Boisen politically and financially in the first few years. However, Cabot was trying to establish something different, and by the fifth year of the new project, he was gone.

One of the potential side benefits of this monograph could be that Fitchett, Nolan, and Damen might talk to one another more often and catch up on things. To be sure, they live on different continents, but modern electronics allows for zoom and various other immediate forms of communication. So, perhaps they could get on the same page. They might also begin talking to collegial communities rather than pretending that they are the only pastoral clinicians in the world.

The authentic work of the pastoral psychotherapist brings to mind the words of W. H. Auden: “I didn’t know what I knew until you asked me.” That is a hint of the role of a pastoral clinician – to ask and to listen. Sadly missing in the Fitchett collection of essays is any suggestion of dialogue. There is no sense of the “and yet…” in the book; and no sense of “on the one hand, and on the other hand,” that it might be essential in a clinician’s work. Instead, Fitchett has created a univocal world where he and his think-alikes are the lone voice. He has a rigid thesis, but he accepts no antithesis. Currently published criticisms of Fitchett’s work have been suppressed or ignored and do not make it to Fitchett’s bibliographies. The consequence is that Fitchett has created an isolated, sterile world. 

Unfortunately, George Fitchett, through the years, has gone way down the road into no man’s land and taken much of the clinical pastoral training movement with him, and this is a significant loss for those who saw in Boisen the hope for a more competent clinical pastoral service, aka “pastoral psychotherapy,” in the chaplaincy arena. My impression of Fitchett’s chaplains is that they don’t have time for that because they need to get on with those quick prayers and mini-sermons with patients. They may bring immediate comfort to some but ennui to most, never hearing a patient’s voice. Then they move on to collect more statistics presuming to describe a transformed chaplaincy.


* Footnote: There is evidence asserting that Boisen was working with case studies of psychiatric patients in Puerto Rico as early as 1900, eight years before his seminary study. However, that alleged data is most likely incorrect, according to Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD, the preeminent authority on Boisen. The source also erroneously cites Boisen’s birth and death dates as 1912-1981. Nevertheless, the cases themselves may well be authentically Boisen and of great interest. 
See: http//web.metro.inter.edu.facultad/esthumanisticos/anton_boisen.asp

Raymond J. Lawrence

Raymond J. Lawrence, General Secretary
[email protected]