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How and why chaplains came to share the love of Jesus

by ervte

The recent debate over pastoral care in schools between feminist author and commentator Jane Caro and biblical scholar and author John Dickson has raised the question, “What is a chaplain?” put forward. I am certainly not a neutral party, I have worked as a chaplain in elderly care for the past 13 years, but a practitioner’s perspective could be helpful.

Defining a chaplain is a complicated, evolving, and contentious question that forces us to look to history and examine pastoral ministry today.

A short history lesson

‘Chapter’ is derived from the Latin Capella, meaning little cloak, and dates back to the 4th-century Saint Martin the Merciful. Martin was a Roman army officer who became a Catholic priest and then a bishop in France, where he founded several monasteries. The robe traveled with him to the priesthood. While traveling through the snow, wrapped in his beloved cloak, he came across a poor man who was turning into a “snowflake,” a Russian euphemism for death from hypothermia. Martin cut his cover in half and gave half to the man.How and why chaplains came to share the love of Jesus - Eternity News

The cloth was handmade and expensive. A full cloak indicated high social status. Martin’s carved robe was later revered and guarded by “chaplains,” literally the guardians of the half robe. But because Sint Maarten was concerned for the poor, those in need came to those guarding his mantle for care, leading clerics who focused on care to become known as “chaplains.”

The first English chaplains were clergy who served the armed forces, as it was necessary to care for the living and bury the dead. From there, pastoral care spread to institutions such as schools and hospitals. At that time, a chaplain was an ordained Christian minister whose focus was not a geographic area or parish but a specific institution. As such, the qualifications were identical to those required to run a church. While many chaplains were exceptional, some clergy were transferred to the chaplaincy because they could not serve in the local church.

As Western countries became less “culturally Christian” and organizations grew, the pastoral ministry also included clergy of each faith who served a specific institution. Typically, such people were appointed and paid by faith communities and typically were “clergymen.” More recently, there has been a shift towards chaplains directly employed by the organization they serve, and there has been a growing number of interfaith or non-religious chaplains. This has raised a question about the qualifications and expectations that chaplains serve outside their faith community. As a result, ordination has often been replaced or combined with ‘presence and listening training.

The secularization of the pastorate

Given the move away from an overtly Christian pursuit, and especially the increasing secularization of many institutions, pastoral care has diversified considerably. Even within Christian pastoral care, there is enormous diversity; for example, chaplains in public schools are expressly prohibited from evangelizing, while Christian chaplains in other contexts want to share Jesus’ love openly. In addition, context, theology, and gifts allow for enormous variation in where Christian chaplains focus (e.g., sacraments, individual visitation, and Christian groups).

So, what is a chaplain? Generally, an expert in spirituality and pastoral skills (e.g., presence and listening) working with a specific organization. The employer typically determines the balance between spiritual and religious and the details of spirituality. Perhaps this definition can be sharpened by comparing a chaplain to a social worker, counselor, and local pastor.

Social workers and counselors do not have to be spiritual experts and may feel uncomfortable dealing with spirituality. Second, social workers and counselors are typically paid positions, while many chaplains are volunteers. And third, a chaplain is not bound by fixed agreements, and their role encourages more relational than professional encounters.

The main difference between the ministry of the local church and the ministry of the pastorate is the people—about 95 percent of the people associated with a local pastor claim to be Christian. The opposite is true for chaplains.

So what makes a great chaplain? Specifically, what makes a great Christian chaplain (I am not qualified to speak to other faith and non-believer chaplains)? Let’s take a look at the job of a Christian chaplain.

The Necessary Qualities of a Christian Chaplain

A Christian chaplain works to share the love of Jesus within an organization. This has five implications for the qualities needed to be a great chaplain:

1) Loves God and loves people, especially the demographic they serve.2) Meets the biblical criteria to be an elder and meets the criteria for leadership in their denomination (pastoral ministry is different from local church ministry, but not better or worse).3) Exceptional human skills with a particular focus on presence and listening.4) A strong theological foundation is equivalent to a theology degree, as a pastoral ministry is typically in a painful environment. The chaplain needs a sound theology of suffering, the ability to teach, and the practice of self-care. The rigor of a chaplain’s theological underpinnings has to do with the intensity and capacity of their chaplain. A full-time chaplain generally needs a theology degree or equivalent, while a part-time volunteer chaplain does not.

Some additional valuable skills are:

An intimate experience of pain, such as chaplains, typically provides for the broken-out experience of brokenness. However, the practice of pastoral care will teach a person about pain. Leadership qualities. Ability to conduct church services and specifically conduct funerals—musical gift.

Does this mean that a chaplain only carries out “spiritual” ministry? No! I regularly cook on the barbecue, assist with activities such as bingo, art and exercise groups, and hang out with people.

Ultimately, at the heart of everything a great chaplain does is to love people as Jesus loved them.


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