Imagine a busy hospital filled with people from all walks of life and faith backgrounds, people now facing perhaps their greatest times of uncertainty and challenge. Questions and fears flood their minds as they rush into emergency rooms, roll into surgery or wait for reports from critical scans and blood tests. If these patients and their families are fortunate, the medical professionals serving them will be joined by another specially trained team member: a hospital chaplain.
Master of Divinity student Alex Aken now serves 12 hours each week on the floors of Bethesda Hospital East in Boynton Beach, working through the clinical pastoral education (CPE) provided by Baptist Health South Florida, a key partner with Palm Beach Atlantic’s School of Ministry.
“Every interaction with a patient has been different,” Aken said. “I’ve found that a chaplain has to build a posture of openness, receiving the newness of each moment with a sense of curiosity and surrender and gratitude.” He seeks to be a “listening presence,” discerning “how the wisdom of God is moving in that space.”
CPE Director Misti Johnson-Arce smiles when asked about Aken. “Alex is a breath of fresh air,” she said. “I think when he walks onto the floor, he brings a lot of warmth, and his compassion is very evident. He creates safety and trust with patients and families quickly.”
Johnson-Arce knows what it takes to create safety and trust in such settings. Her premature birth as a twin left her with mild cerebral palsy and she spent much time as a patient in children’s hospitals. At a tender age she realized she “was still very much blessed” in comparison to some of the other children around her, “and so I always knew I wanted to come into the healthcare setting.”
She earned her Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, then completed a three-year chaplain residency, followed by additional training to become a certified educator with the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education. She is also board-certified with the Association of Professional Chaplains. Her extensive experience includes 17 years with a nationwide hospice, serving in the dual role of educator and manager of chaplains.
“We try to bring peace in the midst of chaos and to be a non-anxious and calming presence in the dark and scary times for people,” said Johnson-Arce.
Chaplains are needed not only in hospitals, but also in hospice, retirement communities and the military. PBA chaplaincy students such as Aken are earning a concentration within their M.Div. in a new program supported by a $5 million grant from Lilly Endowment through its Pathways for Tomorrow initiative.
Aken, from Orlando, earned his bachelor’s degree in ministry from PBA, graduating in 2021. Throughout his four undergraduate years, “I found I was being formed spiritually, mentally, emotionally and socially,” he said. “The professors really emphasized that the character of who we are as ministers, and our personal relationship with God and the people around us will lead to what we do and how we serve others.”
The M.Div. program with chaplaincy concentration “has been a fantastic experience,” he said. “It’s been a very supportive and encouraging environment.”
Aken has long sensed a call to ministry, but he’s not sure where he’ll serve after graduating in May with his M.Div. He might pursue a hospital chaplain residency, and he hasn’t “closed the door” on a military chaplaincy.
“Even if I don’t end up going the formal chaplaincy route later down the road,” he said, “I know that my experiences and the training that I’ve received are going to serve to serve me tremendously well when I’m serving others, whether it’s through pastoral care, counseling or anything else in ministry.”
In addition to its bachelor degree programs in ministry and the Master of Divinity, Palm Beach Atlantic’s School of Ministry offers the MDiv + MBA , MDiv + MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling , M.A. in Christian Studies , MACS + MS in International Development, M.A. in Intercultural Studies , M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and Ph.D. in Practical Theology .