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Milligan's chaplain graduates help others keep the faith

Contributed • May 20, 2018 at 5:00 AM

MILLIGAN COLLEGE — After converting to Christianity as an undergraduate in California, Thomas Arbaugh felt called to ministry and began working with kids; however, he felt he didn’t have the right tools to make an impact.

When he heard about Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan, in Johnson City, he sold everything and moved with his family cross country in 2010, where he pursued a Master of Divinity (M.Div.), giving him the opportunity to volunteer as a student hospital chaplain.

He fell in love with helping those who were suffering.

“I discovered that working as a chaplain took the best practices of mental health and Christian ministry and blended them together,” said Arbaugh.

Working with people in extreme personal situations “raises the stakes” about the ultimate meaning of Christian theology, he added.

“When you have to wrestle with questions of ultimate concern, and you’re talking to a widow who has just lost her husband, the theology comes alive,” said Arbaugh.

Emmanuel’s M.Div. program, which is considered the standard program of ministerial education and is formally required for ordination by many churches, is a three-year, 90 credit hour program that includes chaplaincy experience for those seeking it as a career. The seminary’s “Christian Care and Counseling” concentration is specifically designed to train hospital and military chaplains, among other positions.

“For the M.Div. students seeking to become chaplains, CPE training is probably the most life-changing experience they have in seminary,” said Dr. Jack Holland, professor of Christian ministries and liaison to the chaplaincy program. “What sets Emmanuel’s chaplain program apart is its proximity to hospitals with Clinical Pastoral Education programs.”

Tennessee has eight CPE programs, two of which are in Johnson City. Holland said that many larger cities don’t have any certified CPE programs. The next closest ones are in Asheville and Knoxville, each with one, respectively.

“This greatly increases the training opportunities that students preparing for chaplaincy have,” said Holland. “Whether they are preparing for military chaplaincy or hospital chaplaincy, the training they receive at Emmanuel is an essential step toward their future.”

Past Emmanuel alums have not only pursued chaplaincy careers in the Tri-Cities or surrounding states — they serve all over the world.

“The Emmanuel students always come well-prepared with knowledge about church history, Christian theology, biblical studies, as well as Christian care and counseling,” said Rev. Larry Easterling, CPE educator at Ballad Health’s Johnson City Medical Center. “At JCMC, they are introduced to ‘practical theology,’ in the form of families and patients who are experiencing some of the most difficult times in their lives. Witnessing these Emmanuel students transform their knowledge into compassionate, competent spiritual care for patients and families is an inspiration for me and others on our spiritual care staff. I treasure our relationship with Emmanuel.”

Marissa Levan, a 2005 M.Div. graduate who now serves as the hospice chaplain at Johnson City Medical Center, in Johnson City, praised the faculty at Emmanuel not only for inspiring and teaching her, but preparing her for the reality of ministry.

“At Emmanuel, nobody teaches you what to think, they teach you how to think,” said Levan. “My education has followed me throughout my time as a chaplain and is still vital to the way in which I minister to people in the midst of trauma, suffering and death.”

For Arbaugh, the education he received at Emmanuel helped him prepare not only for those difficult counseling sessions, but also how to practice good self-care.

“Professors like Dr. Holland helped me keep my own faith intact after repeated exposure to others’ suffering,” said Arbaugh.

After graduating in 2014, Arbaugh decided he had found his true calling. He sought a position in the local area and was hired as senior chaplain at Indian Path Medical Center in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he continues to serve those who are experiencing loss and grief.

Learn more about Emmanuel and the chaplaincy program at ecs.milligan.edu.

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