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Loyola University Chicago

Institute of Pastoral Studies

The Theology of Suffering and Caring for the Human Spirit

David A. Lichter

Dr. David Lichter
Executive Director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC)


David Lichter: Recently I had a conversation with a woman in her early thirties who had been an elementary school teacher until her father's terminal illness led her to leave her job and care for him in his last years of life. After her father died, and during his final months, she found herself being drawn to give her life for people like her father who in the midst of life's seeming diminishments discover life's fullness, purpose, and beauty, a loving surrender of oneself to Life's Mystery. She got a job to support her theological studies and is now beginning clinical pastoral education. She wants to be hospice chaplain. Her story is not uncommon among chaplains.

Being drawn to the Life's Paschal Mystery whether it is with a Buddhist, a Muslim, an Atheist, or a Catholic, caring for the human spirit as it seeks meaning and purpose in the midst of illness, aging, or dying is the chaplain's vocation. The chaplain is trained to be present to someone, listen deeply, help identify the emotional, spiritual, existential struggle, explore with the person, as invited, what this person's challenges mean to him or her, to loved ones, to one's life's plans and purpose, and to understand and help the person embrace her or his inner and religious resources. The chaplain does not do that in isolation but within the context of the total care the person is receiving whether it is in acute care, a clinic, a residence, or his or her home.

IPS: What are the current challenges and opportunities of a Chaplaincy as a ministry and profession?

David Lichter: Yes, chaplaincy is a profession and a ministry.

As a ministry, one challenge is to make Catholic lay women and men, religious and priests, aware of the need for more professionally trained board certified Catholic chaplains. I receive regularly requests from mission leaders throughout the country for applications from Catholic chaplains. Twenty years ago (1994) the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC) had 3583 members. Fifty percent were religious women (1802), twenty-four percent were lay (864), twenty present were priests (710), and five percent were brothers and deacons (171). Now twenty years later, the NACC membership is 2355 with fifty-three percent Lay (1247), twenty-seven percent religious women (635), eighteen percent priests (417), four percent brothers and deacons. The great loss to ministry of religious women, who founded and served with Catholic health care, has not yet been met by lay men and women embracing this ministry. No doubt health care is in momentous change and spiritual care departments have had reduction in staff. However, even with fewer positions in spiritual care, the need for Catholic chaplains is there. The challenges remain to create an awareness among Catholics women and men that chaplaincy is also a lay vocation, to find ways to link graduate programs in pastoral ministry to both health care organizations and the local diocesan leadership to ensure that trained, endorsed, certified Catholic men and women, religious, lay, and ordained, are prepared to be the next generation of professional chaplains. IPS is an excellent example and model of a graduate program that is linked to both the Archdiocese and health care institutions.

As a profession, chaplaincy needs to continue to standardized its practice and provide evidence-based care through research, and to advance in being seen and experienced as a valued partner in holistic care, an integral partner on the interdisciplinary clinical team, an essential player in an institution's efforts toward quality and safety, and a pioneer partner in pilot projects on community-based and preventative care initiatives.  The collaborative work among the various professional chaplaincy associations is good, but we can do better. Our leaders are committed to provide one voice on behalf of chaplaincy.


David A. Lichter is the current Executive Director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC). He also recently served for three years as chair of the Steering Committee of the Spiritual Care Collaborative, a coalition of six professional associations that developed for professional chaplains common standards for certification and a professional code of ethics. With the NACC, along with his overall leadership, David provides to members and other spiritual care leaders education and retreat programs on spirituality of leadership, chaplaincy and Church, workplace spirituality, respecting religious diversity at end of life, and the profession of chaplaincy. He has also provided reflection and planning days for mission and pastoral care leaders within Catholic health systems. David works closely with the Catholic Health Association Pastoral Care Advisory Committee on advancing the field of spiritual care with Catholic health care systems.

He assumed the NACC leadership position August 2007 after eleven years at Growth Design Corporation, a national consulting firm that provided resource and organizational development services to mission-based organizations, where he served in diverse roles, including Chief Operating Officer, Chief Service Officer and Senior Consultant. His consulting practice included strategic planning facilitation, organizational assessments, board development, and executive search.

Prior to Growth Design, David devoted over twenty-one years to ministerial leadership formation in theological and ministerial settings both in Milwaukee and in Rome Italy. He has taught courses in spirituality, leadership in ministry, spiritual direction, and other related areas. He also currently is an adjunct faculty member of the College of Business and Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, offering courses in business ethics and non-western religions. He earned his S.T.B. and S.T.L. from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and his Doctor of Ministry from University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife, Jackie, live in Muskego, Wisconsin, and are proud parents of three children and grandparents of three. 

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