Called to a Second Career as a Chaplain

6 years ago

After almost 25 years of working as a dental hygienist, I realized my mind, body, and soul couldn't make it for another 20 years or so.

And so the Great Discernment began.

I am a God person -– believe in, go to church to worship, and serve -- kind of God person.

Over the years, people have asked me if I wanted to be a pastor. I always said no, because I really don't want to be a "in a church" pastor. In my experience, pastors work in a parish. They preach for each week's worship service and do some counseling. Most churches have committees that oversee finances and human resource issues, but, in my denomination, the pastor has the last word. They also attend meetings, soothe egos, and if they're lucky, get two whole days off a week.

I knew I did not have the personality or abilities to be such a generalist. I did know that my gifts were in the listening, healing and nurturing aspects of ministry.

Searching for a Calling

After attending several funerals, one really moving, and one really unsatisfying, I began to investigate the job of celebrating funerals. I knew God had gifted me with the spirits of understanding and empathy. After experiencing several deaths in my family, I knew what kind of presence was most helpful at the time of grief and bereavement.

I investigated counseling and social work programs, but they didn't fit. The counseling field required more distance from the "needing" person than I knew I could help. I also learned that social workers spend a lot of their time on how-to stuff like finding people resources and teaching them how to negotiate with Medicare. I knew that what I really needed was to be in the moment with people who were hurting.

Finally, in a God moment, a friend insisted that the seminary was what I was searching for. I did some research, and found that you could be a pastor and work in a setting other than a local parish! The bricks of discernment laid themselves out for me -– I would become a chaplain.

Chaplains are the spiritual resource people in hospitals, prisons, hospices, schools and the military. They are interdenominational and interfaith, meeting a person’s spiritual needs where they are, not where we think someone should be. I like to think of it as being God's arms and ears to offer comfort and support.

I dusted off my brain and applied to graduate school.

Me at graduation.

The Good and Bad of Going Back to School

Going back to school at 45 was funny. My brain needed to work harder to keep up, my classmates were the same ages as my children, and it cost money, a lot of money! As a single parent, I had to keep working to pay that pesky mortgage and keep food in the cupboard. I was able to work half time and afford school by relying on student loans to supplement my income. That part was easy. But the reality at the other end was harsh – more on that later.

I was accepted to the Claremont School of Theology in southern California. The master of divinity program I enrolled in consists of 81 units. Students who go full time finish in three years. Doing it part time, I took five. But the feeling of walking across that platform to receive my master's degree was fabulous!

The ministry term for the work you feel God is leading you to is your "call." Because my call is to be a chaplain, I needed to do a year of additional work. That requires completing a part-time, unpaid, 400-hour training unit, and after that, a full-time residency, which usually pays a yearly stipend of $24,000 to $30,000. I am just finishing my first-part time unit, and have applied for a full-time residency for the next year.

Because of the time it's taken me to finish my schooling and training, my finances are a mess: my credit rating is shot, and I have another year of being poor to look forward to. On the positive side, I am choosing to start this new chapter of my life in a new state. I will be selling my house and using the proceeds to pay down a large chunk of my student loan and start fresh.

Looking back, I realize that the friends who worked hard to earn scholarships and grants to cover their chaplain training tuition costs were really smart. But at the time, I didn’t have the energy or time to devote to it. Had I, it would have made this end easier.

Pursuing a Second Career Serving Others

If you're thinking of going back to school for a career change, my advice is to get your financial ducks in a row before you start. If possible, find out what your earnings will be when you begin your new life.

Hospices, churches, schools, and countless other nonprofit organizations thrive on those of us with life experience. I found this experience (i.e. being old) a great help in grad school. The youngsters may have been able to do footnotes on their computers without tutoring. But I could understand the situation of one elderly man who prayed that his wife wouldn't die, and when she did, lost his way with God. I could understand a little better the unjustness of the way the world works because I have lived in it longer that my younger classmates.

Nonprofits can use the experiences of people my age because we can see a big picture, from the history of an issue to the places where it would be fruitful to continue working. We bring a maturity that stops us from giving up at the first obstacle. We know that patience and perseverance are the keys to creating change.

Many mature adults have more time to devote to working for nonprofits. Our children are grown, we don't have to be home to fix dinner or check homework, we are often much more flexible in our free time.

That idea we had in our youth of changing the world doesn't go away, and in our last half or third of life, we may have the opportunity to work on those dreams. I have a friend in Thailand right now, a retired university professor, who is teaching as a Peace Corps volunteer. Before another friend passed away recently, he started a credit counseling service in his retirement and through it was instrumental in changing lives. It is never too late, and the world is waiting.

However things work out for you, revel in the chance to spend the last chapter of your working life doing something you love.

Terri Gibbons is a Fullerton, Calif., single mother of two and former dental hygienist. She received a master’s of divinity from Claremont School of Theology and is currently applying for chaplain residency programs in Oregon. Follow her on Facebook.


Kaplan University provides a practical, student-centered education that prepares individuals for careers in some of the fastest-growing industries. The University, which has its main campus in Davenport, Iowa, and its headquarters in Chicago, is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission ( It serves more than 53,000 online and campus-based students. The University has 11 campuses in Iowa, Nebraska, Maryland and Maine, and Kaplan University Learning Centers in Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Florida.

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