How and why chaplains came to share the love of Jesus

The recent debate about chaplaincy in schools between feminist author and commentator Jane Caro and biblical scholar and author John Dickson has brought to the fore the question of ‘What is a chaplain?’. I am certainly not a neutral party, having worked as an aged-care chaplain for the past 13 years, but perhaps a practitioner’s perspective could be helpful?

Defining a chaplain is a complicated, evolving and contested question which requires us to look to history and then examine chaplaincy today.

A short history lesson

‘Chaplain’ is derived from the Latin word cappella, meaning little cloak, and dates 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 cloak journeyed with him into the priesthood. Travelling through the snow wrapped in his beloved cloak, he came across a poor man who was becoming a ‘snowflake’, a Russian euphemism for death via hypothermia. Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the man.

Cloth was handmade and expensive. A full cloak denoted high social status. Martin’s cut cloak was later venerated and guarded by ‘chaplains’, literally keepers of the half cloak. However, due to St Martin’s care for the poor, people in need came to those who guarded his cloak for care, thus clergy whose focus was caring became known as ‘chaplains’.

The first English chaplains were clergymen who served the armed services, as the need was not just to care for the living but to bury the dead. From there chaplaincy spread into institutions such as schools and hospitals. At this point, a chaplain was an ordained Christian minister whose focus was not a geographical 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 moved into chaplaincy because they were incapable of ministering in the local church.

As Western countries became less ‘culturally Christian’ and organisations grew, chaplaincy came to include clergy from any faith who ministered to a specific institution. Typically, such people were appointed and paid for by faith communities and, typically, they were ‘clergy’. More recently, there has been a move to chaplains being employed directly by the organisation they serve and there is a growing number of interfaith or no-faith chaplains. This has raised a question regarding qualifications and an expectation that chaplains minister beyond their own faith community. As a result, ordination has often been substituted by or partnered with training in ‘presence and listening’.

The secularisation of chaplaincy

Given the movement away from an overtly Christian endeavour, and particularly the increasing secularisation of many institutions, chaplaincy has diversified significantly. Even within Christian chaplaincy, there is huge diversity; for example, chaplains in public schools are expressly forbidden from evangelism, while Christian chaplains in other contexts look to overtly share Jesus’ love. Additionally, context, theology and gifting mean there is a huge variation in where Christian chaplains put their focus (for example, sacraments, individual visiting and Christian groups).

So, what is a chaplain? Generally, an expert in spirituality and pastoral care skills (for example, presence and listening) who works with a specific organisation. The employer typically determines the balance between spiritual and pastoral and the details of spirituality. Perhaps this definition can be tightened by contrasting a chaplain with a social worker, counsellor and local church minister.

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

The biggest difference between local church ministry and chaplaincy ministry is the people. About 95 per cent of the people a local church minister relates to profess to be Christians. The opposite is true of chaplains.

So what makes a great chaplain? Specifically, what makes a great Christian chaplain (I am not qualified to speak to other faith and no-faith chaplains). Let’s consider the function of a Christian chaplain.

The necessary qualities of a Christian chaplain

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

1)      Loves God and loves people, particularly the demographic they serve.
2)      Fulfils the biblical criteria to be an elder and fulfils the criteria for leadership in their denomination (chaplaincy is different from local church ministry but not better or worse).
3)      Exceptional people skills with a particular focus on presence and listening.
4)      A strong theological grounding that is equivalent to a theology degree because chaplaincy is typically ministry in a pain-rich environment. The chaplain needs a solid theology of suffering, along with an ability to teach and a theology and practice of self-care. The rigour of a chaplain’s theological grounding relates to the intensity and capacity of their chaplaincy. A full-time chaplain generally needs a theology degree or equivalent, while a part-time voluntary chaplain may not.

Some additional valuable skills include:

  1. An intimate experience of pain, as chaplains typically care for the broken out of an experience of brokenness. However, chaplaincy practice will teach a person about pain.
  2. Leadership qualities.
  3. Ability to lead church services, and specifically conduct funerals.
  4. Musical gifting.

Does this mean a chaplain only exercises ‘spiritual’ ministry? No! I regularly cook the barbecue, help with activities such as bingo, art and exercise groups, and just engage with people.

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