After 25 Years, Female Chaplain Endorsed by LDS Church
I recently had the opportunity to interview LeNae Peavey-Onstad, a Mormon woman and hospital chaplain. LeNae is the person who introduced me to the Exponent five years ago, so I am forever grateful to her. She was recently endorsed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) as a chaplain—twenty-five years after she first sought such an endorsement in 1990 and eight years after beginning full-time work in the profession.
Why did you choose to become a chaplain?
In 1988, I was working at St. Mark’s Hospital as registrar and switchboard operator. I became familiar with the pastoral care program for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) since I called in the chaplains at night and on the weekends for deaths and crises. I came to understand the diverse religious affiliations of these chaplains and how they are trained to be ecumenical and sensitive to all faiths and cultures. My interest increased over time to the point that I felt that I needed to be the one responding to such crises. I found myself concerned for those involved in the life-changing circumstances they were facing.
I enrolled in my unit of Clinical Pastoral Education in 1989. The enrollment process was rigorous, requiring many interviews and recommendations. It was during this time that an LDS chaplain at Veteran Affairs (VA) encouraged me to follow this path. He told me he was endorsed by the LDS church as required by the VA. However, he had never served in the Armed Forces.
When did you first attempt to become endorsed by the LDS Church for chaplaincy?
Realizing that this career path would require the highest level of education—higher than a master’s degree—I became serious about finishing my Bachelor’s and moving through the process. There was a glitch because with all of this education and cost looming ahead, I would also need an endorsement to be hired. I contacted the LDS church to make sure that this was possible.
The church had no department for hospital chaplains so I was left to sort it out. My first letter was sent to Marion D. Hanks in early June 1990 asking about endorsement or permission from the LDS church to work as a paid chaplain in a hospital with their blessing. He wrote back on June 19, 1990, stating that the church does not have a commission to work in this type of setting. He referred me to Dr. Harold Brown in the Social Services Department.
In the meantime, I had inquired of my bishop about a letter of reference. He referred me to the Stake President who inquired of the church about such a letter. The Stake President told me that he had received a letter from Church Headquarters telling him that he was not to write me a recommendation letter of any sort.
On November 21, 1990 I received a letter from F. Michael Watson on behalf of the First Presidency and Military Relations Committee including the Utah Central Area Presidency. I was commended for my desire to serve but the letter stated that it was not possible for the Church to provide ecclesiastical endorsement to hospital chaplains. They said that those who are hospitalized can most often have their needs met by their own priesthood leaders or priesthood leaders in the local area.
How did you accomplish the goal of becoming a chaplain and being endorsed for your work by the Church?
I prayed about the issue and felt strongly encouraged to continue to process and the “doors would open.” I met an LDS woman named Kathryn in California who was working at Stanford Medical Center in the process of taking her Clinical Pastoral Education. She said she had also met with the church military chaplain division and often stopped by to see if there were any developments.
I had moved to the South and visits to Church Headquarters were not possible for me. I continued to raise four children and complete the schooling. Around 1999, during a visit to Salt Lake, I stopped by the military chaplaincy offices of the church and spoke with Frank Clawson. He was kind. I informed him that I was seeking endorsement and pursuing the degrees to become a chaplain.
I moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 for a full time chaplain job after completing my Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas in 2004. I had also completed four total units of ACPE while completing the Master’s degree.
That same year I again made an appointment with Frank Clawson and informed him that I was now working at Pioneer Valley Hospital as the chaplain. Again, I was told that only service members who are chaplains can be endorsed. He informed me that he was aware of Kathryn and others were now coming forward seeking endorsement. He indicated that the leadership was not ready to make a decision regarding endorsement.
In 2014, there was a news article saying that the church was considering endorsement of hospital chaplains but I didn’t see it. I was told about it by someone who had read the article nearly nine months after the announcement. Since the church did not actively try to keep track of the people who were approaching them about endorsement, no letters went out to those individuals. I met with my current bishop about endorsement. The process took approximately eight months due to lost paperwork and communication problems with leaders. I finally received my endorsement letter on November 3, 2015.
What are the barriers to chaplaincy for LDS women?
The most difficult part for me to understand was that the LDS Church appeared to see themselves as the only valued faith in the area. They thought they could use the LDS leadership and visitation roles as a substitute for pastoral care needed by hospital populations that included members of many faiths and people without any faith at all.
This frustrated me in particular during my training, when a gentleman who was dying informed me that he had long ago dismissed the LDS church. No one from the church had come around to support him in many years, and yet, he was ready to come home. It was the chaplain who made that connection for him and provided that support during his darkest hour. The church accepted him back with open arms, but without the gentle trust and support of the chaplain, he may not have softened enough to grieve the losses in his life and accept what he needed.
Due to the structure of the LDS church, I felt that my desires and gifts were overlooked due to my gender. This is not to say I did not receive support and encouragement from my leaders, but when it came to my desires to step outside the expected box, I felt I was not taken seriously. Other women I have been in contact with over the years have felt the same way.
It has been a much harder road to walk as a female chaplain among members of my own faith than among members of any other faith that I have encountered in the nine years of working as a full-time paid chaplain. I find that I often have to prove my value and skills to LDS families. The terms are unfamiliar as are the patient advocacy roles we play in the hospitals and hospices. I must work harder and I must be better at what I do to earn respect. Patient by patient, I am educating the public about the skills and virtues of the chaplain.
Women have often been harsher with me than men. Women are used to seeing men in leadership and spiritual roles. It is unfamiliar for them to see women offering spiritual care in hospitals. Often, male chaplains are respected as priesthood leaders even when it is unclear what their faith orientation is.
Jointly, couples and families sometimes excuse the chaplain under the guise that the bishop is involved. They are reluctant to discuss their spirituality and fears with a stranger. Those that do are surprised at the amount of support, education and spiritual care a chaplain of any faith or gender will provide.
The biggest obstacle to women wishing to be chaplains who are raised in the Utah area is their limited exposure to other faiths and cultures. The killer of non-judgmental support to patients is a lack of this knowledge and understanding.
Do you have any advice for other LDS women who may be interested in chaplaincy?
I encourage all women wishing to become hospital chaplains to pursue the highest quality of education possible. Jump through the hoops to get into the best programs and finish Master’s Degrees at accredited institutions. The Clinical Pastoral Education program you choose can severely limit your ability to be employed in many places. Look at chaplain jobs in the Bible belt, look at their educational requirements and pursue those. As women seek out the best education, not only will the quality of female chaplains increase, but also their ability to be hired in the best paying jobs, move up into management and gain respect of colleagues. If you want to work in a hospital, apply early and get into a ACPE training institution; do not accept anything less. Travel out of state to get that training if necessary.
If your only desire is to ever work in hospice, there are programs out there for that. We should not confuse that experience or education as something the crisis and trauma of a busy emergency room in a hospital would prepare you for. The educational requirements are entirely different. Consider your skills, desires and spiritual gifts. I would be happy to answer questions.