A Chaplain Speaks to Pastors

As a chaplain, I sometimes feel like Rodney Dangerfield. We often don’t get respect—particularly from ministerial colleagues. Some see us as pastoral failures who became chaplains because we “couldn’t make it” in the congregation. Some see us as having “left the ministry”—I’ve heard that several times, from other pastors and from church administrators.

But chaplains are pastors. We are pastors serving in specialized institutional settings. We have no more left the ministry than a cardiologist has left medicine. In no other field does the general practitioner look down upon the specialist, because they know the specialists are doing the difficult cases and are pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge and of practice.

As in medicine, so in ministry, the general practitioner has much to learn from the specialist. Here’s what chaplains have to offer to pastors.

Experience. A chaplain has congregational ministry experience, and needs it to be endorsed by the church for a specialized ministry. That’s the foundation. Chaplains are pastors first. We see congregational ministers as brothers and sisters in ministry. We’ve built on that common foundation in specialized settings: the hospital and hospice, the military, the university, the prison, the police or fire department. We have specialized experience in fields such as trauma, suicide prevention and intervention, behavioral health, geriatrics, substance abuse, and family crisis. Pastors deal with these things from time to time—this is our “bread and butter.”

Education. The Master of Divinity degree is the starting point for most fields of chaplaincy (some allow for a 48 hour M.A. in Pastoral Ministry, but I personally think that the M.Div. needs to be the universal standard). Beyond this, we may have Clinical Pastoral Education, from one unit to four or eight or more. CPE is supervised ministry in a clinical setting—I did mine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center back in 1986 on the Neurosurgery/Neurology and Orthopedics wards. In the military, we can get assigned to do an additional Master’s in bioethics, world religions, or Marriage and Family Therapy. We have regular professional education and mentorship to prepare us for increased supervisory responsibilities. Some go on for a D.Min. or a Ph.D.

Evangelism. Yes, we do evangelism. But we don’t restrict the definition of evangelism to a two week public crusade or prophecy seminar. Our ministry is personal evangelism. We build relationships with the people we serve. Sometimes that has to happen instantly, in a crisis situation. Sometimes it takes time to develop, as we live among service members or experience the life of an academic community. We get to know their questions and concerns, hopes and dreams. We call this “ministry of presence.” We are in the midst of institutions to be a presence and a voice of hope, and to speak good news and grace to those in trial.

Leadership. I heard it recently said that we have no leadership development programs in our denomination. That’s what seminary is supposed to do, is it not? That’s the starting point. In many chaplaincy settings leadership development occurs constantly. Annual fitness reports are based on an eye to the future. Courses and counseling prepare for successive levels of responsibility. Senior leaders have their eye on their subordinates, looking for gifts that can be nurtured and developed. Leadership development isn’t an added thing, but is a basic assumption that this is what we do.

Diversity. Some denominations complain about a lack of diversity. For the chaplain, this is the air we breathe. We are pastors to people of many faiths and none, from many cultures. We live and work with people who think differently from us. We work as teams, with mutual respect and understanding.

Collaboration. For hospital chaplains, collaboration includes being part of interdisciplinary teams planning for a patient’s care. For military chaplains, it includes being a part of a staff in which members have specialized functions and work together under a commander and the coordination of the executive officer. We advise the commander and staff on issues of religion, morals, and morale within the unit, and on issues of religion in the area of operations.

Multifaith. Our “parishioners” are of many faiths, as are our fellow chaplains, including supervisors, subordinates, and peers. I’ve supervised Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Baptists, Mormons, liberals and conservatives, gays and straight. I’ve worked alongside Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Pagan lay leaders and chaplains. In this pluralistic environment, we learn to collaborate with those of other faiths without compromising our own beliefs; we provide for others’ religious needs to be met by colleagues if we cannot personally perform the ministration they need.

Young Adults. Many churches are concerned about young adult retention. We chaplains don’t wait for them to come back, we don’t lament their leaving—we go where they are, including the military, the university, and the prison. We’re not sitting around wondering what to do or how to do it—we’re engaged in ministry every day with young adults who are unchurched, or are questioning, or have been burned by religion. We build relationships with them without pigeon-holing them according to a generational stereotype. We eat with them, run with them, work with them, cry with them.

Families. We minister to families under tremendous stresses. That’s why we get special training in marriage preparation and relationships, and have opportunities for further training in marriage and family therapy. We know grief and anger, and the confusion of separation and reunion.

Crisis. We minister in crisis. We dwell in crisis— in the trauma room, on the battlefield, at the side of someone considering suicide, at the grave of a young person who has met a tragic end. And we can be there for you when you are going through crisis and don’t feel comfortable going to fellow pastors or denominational leaders.

Disaster. We prepare for mass-casualty events, for hurricanes and floods, for earthquakes and terrorist attacks. We are ready to take off on short notice and go where needed. And we can support you when you and your congregation are recovering from a tragedy.

With these varied experiences and specialized training, we are here for you. We can do trainings for you on topics like crisis ministry. We should be part of any discussion about urban ministry, campus ministry, or young adults. We should sit alongside of you at pastors’ meetings, and you should hear our voices and learn our stories at denominational meetings. Together we comprise the ministerium of the church. Together we must collaborate in its mission.