Five years ago, the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center began a chaplain-training program that many Utah men and women considered a godsend.
At last, they could get professional training to do what their hearts desired: Help people deal with the spiritual aspects of suffering through illness, death, homelessness, addiction or imprisonment.
More than two dozen people took part in yearlong training at Salt Lake City's VA, which, unlike an older and more intensive chaplain-training program at St. Mark's Hospital, allowed them to keep their day jobs.
Now, the VA chaplain-training program has ended, and the man who started it, VA Chaplain Mark Allison, is suing the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP) the organization that formerly accredited him to teach as well as several of its officers and a former colleague, Gene Slade, chaplain at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo.
In a 3rd District Court lawsuit, Allison accuses the CPSP and the other defendants of disparaging him to the point that he no longer can teach clinical pastoral education in Utah hospitals, including the VA, at a satellite program he says he was starting in Las Vegas, or through a new organization he is creating, the World Spiritual Health Organization. The CPSP pulled Allison's credentials, which allowed him to teach a move he disputes.
The end of the VA program and the new lawsuit are the latest twists in a long history of attempts to bring more professionalism to Utah's chaplaincy, a field that has long reflected the lay ministry tradition of the state's predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
VA spokeswoman Jill Atwood says the Salt Lake City center canceled its program the last class graduated in mid-2011 for reasons unrelated to any dispute between Allison and his credentialing organization.
"We're shifting the model," she says.
The VA now is considering a program to train pastoral counselors, a specialization that would help it better meet the needs of all veterans, including those who return from war with "moral injury," or guilt over what they did or did not do.
"Our past program was awesome," Atwood says, "but it's time to evolve."
VA Chaplain Joseph Westfall says he doesn't yet have a target date for the program to begin.
Beyond religion • Training and certification standards for chaplains have long been debated. Indeed, there is no consensus on the job's definition, says Robin Black, president of the Utah Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
"What is a chaplain?" she asks. "That is the question of the day."
Still, most chaplains say the job is clear to them: They are not to teach or preach, but to help a person or family deal with the spiritual dimension as they suffer.
"It's about the individual and their journey," says Frank Clawson, director of military relations for the LDS Church. He supervises 84 Mormon military chaplains and chaplains at VA hospitals who have the church's endorsement.
Chaplains can help connect people to their own clergy, but they also provide comfort for those who are unaffiliated or eschew religion.
"It's 'how can I be a friend right now?' " says Lissa Last, a hospice chaplain who graduated from the VA program in 2010.
She once went to considerable effort to connect a dying patient, a homeless Vietnam veteran who had long been out of touch, with his siblings back East. The reunion gave him great comfort, even though he wanted nothing to do with religion.
"Many things can bring peace," Last says.
Increasing demand • Chaplains work in prisons, jails, social service agencies, corporations and hospitals, but the growing hospice industry, fed by an aging population, has created greater demand than ever.
Utah has about 100 hospices.
Americans are also increasingly disconnected from organized religion, and that, likewise, creates more demand for chaplains.
"They don't have a spiritual provider," says Black, a hospice nursing supervisor. "We're trying to step into that role."
Aside from the military and federal prisons, the government sets no standards for how much theological or clinical training a chaplain should have.
Medicare, which funds much of hospice care, and joint commissions for hospitals require only that hospitals and hospices tend to patients' spiritual needs.
In Utah, that often has meant hiring former LDS bishops or stake presidents as chaplains, just as in other regions Baptist ministers, Jewish rabbis or Catholic nuns often serve as chaplains.
Increased competition among hospices and hospitals, however, has many employers seeking chaplains who have at least some clinical pastoral education and, sometimes, a master's degree in theology or divinity.
The Rev. Lincoln Ure, the Episcopal priest who runs the clinical pastoral-education program at St. Mark's Hospital, estimates he has trained 200 students to be chaplains there during the past 25 years.
The program is one of more than 300 around the country accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, a 45-year-old group that itself has U.S. Department of Education accreditation.
"It is considered the benchmark," says Clawson, the LDS Church's military-relations director.
With enough clinical training at an ACPE center and a master's degree in theology or divinity, a chaplain can seek board certification through the Association of Professional Chaplains or through Jewish, Catholic or other chaplain groups that share the same standards.
The CPSP split off from the ACPE more than 20 years ago, preferring a less top-down approach and one that provides more peer review and board certification at the local level.
CPSP has four chapters in Utah and more than 40 members.
Slade, the chaplain at Utah Valley Regional and one of the defendants in Allison's lawsuit, continues to teach student chaplains under the auspices of CPSP.
In an answer filed in 3rd District Court this week to Allison's lawsuit, the CPSP does not explain why it pulled Allison's credentials.
He says it was retaliation because he wouldn't drop the matter when one of his chaplain graduates accused a CPSP official of sexual harassment during a 2010 visit to Salt Lake City.
CPSP acknowledges there was a complaint of "alleged offensive conduct," but denies any retaliation.
Clawson says Allison retains his endorsement as an LDS chaplain for his work at the VA and Wyoming National Guard. Allison formerly was a Utah National Guard chaplain.
"We don't take sides in such issues," Clawson said.