Roles of the Chaplain


I know that people tend to think of chaplaincy as decidedly different from missionary. However, both come from a missional spirit, as one embraces the calling to serve others outside of the church setting. Well, I was supposed to give an commissioning address for some chaplain trainees at our center a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, our neighborhood was locked-down due to illness, Thefore, I could not speak. I decided to share the first draft of my message here. It is more finished at the beginning than the end. Hopefully, I will finish it soon… but what I have done is pretty useful, I think.

CPE has been found useful for many people in Christian ministry, as well as people in other forms of service. However, there has been a tradition of CPE used for chaplains. Chaplains are ministers whose congregation is not the church. This can include the military, a hospital, a jail, a community, a corporation, a government agency, at iba pa. So I will tell my first experience with chaplains.

Many years ago, I graduated from college and I decided to join the United States Navy. I went to Officer Candidate School (OCS)

During the fist week is Indoctrination Week. Our heads our shaved. We have to get up early for exercise, we do everything as a group. We have almost no individual freedom. We C.I.s yell at us and give us orders and emotionally abused. This is supposed to develop a group identity and a feeling of belonginess. I am not sure that that worked for me. All I could think of was that I completed a bechelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, and now I am being treated like people treat a stray dog.

However, during Indoc week, we were scheduled to meet the Navy Chaplains. I think that one was Southern Baptist, another United Methodist, and a third Roman Catholic. We were marched to the Navy chapel (“Chapel of Hope”), and told where to sit. The chaplains welcomed us. They thanked our company instructors (our motivational abusers). Then the chaplains told the instructors to leave the sanctuary. After the instructors left, the chaplains went back and ceremoniously closed the back door of the sanctuary.

At that point, the chaplains told us to relax. The chapel is a refuge, a chapel of hope… there is no rank in the chapel. Chaplains will talk to us as people… not rates, paygrades, divisions, and ID numbers. They will also do their best to minister to everyone… even those of a different faith.

This is a liberating concept. My experience with Navy chaplains has been that they practice what they preach (a good thing). I enjoyed going to the Chapel of Hope on Sundays. Later, on my ship we had a chaplain. He was Southern Baptist. When he left the ship, he was replaced by an Assembly of God chaplain. Truthfully, I never met a chaplain I did not like. In the military, we were separated from our home churches, and often could not connect with a church group. Chaplains helped in this situation.

Chaplains have numerous roles. There have have been some attempts to describe these roles. I will describe some of these roles here.  See the Table at the bottom of this post.

First. A Chaplain in a sense embraces the role of an Apostle. An apostle was one who went out from the church to share God’s message of hope to those who are not part of the church.

So a chaplain does exactly this. A chaplain serves outside of the church being the carrior of hope to the hopeless and grace to hurting.

But a chaplain is not an apostle. A chaplain is not really a proselytizer… A chaplain is not a churchplanter. A chaplain’s ministry is much broader… serving those who accept the message of God and those who reject the message of God.

Thinking of Chaplain as Apostles, I think of St. Francis. He served in the streets not the cathedrals. And like St. Francis, preaching the gospel through actions… if necessary, use words.

Second, A Chaplain in a sense embraces the role of a Prophet. A prophet preaches the word of God, The Prophet served God, but also served the people by being an advocate for the people. Commonly, a prophet sought to express God’s role as an advocate of the people against the government.

As such, a positive role of a chaplain is that he or she can act as an advocate of the people— hospital patients, inmates, military personnel, and so forth— to help the institution.

But there is a bad side as well. A chaplain may serve as an advocate of the people, but is also a servant of the institution. A chaplain should never become a pawn of the institution (a “court prophet” in the worst sense)  but should not see him/herself as an enemy of the institution. He or she must work with institution, seeking to transform it, not overthrow it.

The metaphor of the “Wise fool” applies. A chaplain is like a jester, who works in the court, but is also an outsider. He can say what needs to be said, when others cannot.

Third.  A chaplain may be seen as Pastor.

The chaplain can provide a church (or church equivalent) for cannot be with their church (such as in hospital, jail, military, etc.) The chaplain can provide a community of faith where there is none.

Negatively, a chaplain may make the error of simply becoming a churchplanter. The role is much broader. It is not simply to provide a church for those away from home.

The image related to this role is the Shepherd.

Fourth.  A chaplain may be seen also as a Deacon.

A chaplain is meant to be a servant. He or she should serve all those who are in need. Frankly this draws from the earliest images of chaplaincy. Chaplains were those who helped travelers on their pilgrimmages.

However, chaplains are not just do-gooders. It is nice to be nice. But a chaplain must do more.

At it’s best, it is as Jesus who humbled Himself and served, or Martin of Tours— the founder of chaplaincy

Fifth. A Chaplain may be seen as a Priest

A chaplain serves as a priest in the sense of one who brings the holy into the mundane or secular setting.

However, much like the rest, this can be taken too far. A chaplain should not simply be the purveyor of symbols— a professional pray-er, or a dispenser of wafer and wine.

The related metaphor for this is “Circus clown.”  He or she connects the people (the audience) with that which is stunning or awe-inspiriring, while still being ordinary.

Sixth.  The final one is the Chaplain being a Monastic. Back in the 4th century, Christianity became a favored religion and finally a State Religion in the Roman Empire and in Armenia. The church became popular and as people flooded the churches and small gatherings became great basilicas, some were repulsed by what was happening in the churches. They left the church and moved into the deserts and wastelands to be alone with themselves and with God. Strangely, they started meeting other people who had experienced the same thing. These people who were trying to be alone began to gather together, and eventually started reaching out to others who were outside of the church.

A chaplain works with people who rejected the church or who were rejected by the church, or those who have rejected God. There is a pretty well-known story of a chaplan who served in a university. As chaplain he was scheduled to meet with all of the new students one at a time. Over and over again, a pattern would happen. The chaplain would meet with a student. He would introduce himself to the student and talk about the programs and services available through the chaplain’s office. The student would respond with, “Well, it is nice to meet you Chaplain, but you aren’t likely to see me very much.”

“Why is that?” asked the Chaplain.

“Oh because I don’t believe in God.” replies the student.

“Okay. Tell me about it.”

          Good. The chaplain can provide a church for those who rejected the church or those for whom the church has rejected them.

             Bad. The chaplain can become a Cultist. Just as the the chaplain challenges the secular institution without going to war with it, the chaplain challenges ones own church or denomination without rejecting or going to war with it.

Chaplain As Is Is not Example
Apostle Sent out to Give Hope Just a proselytizer St. Francis
Prophet Advocate for the People At war with institutions. “Wise Fool”
Pastor Church for the unchurched Just a Churchplanter Shepherd
Deacon Servant of All Just a Do-gooder Martin of Tours
Priest Bringing the Holy into the Mundane Just a Religious Symbol “Circus Clown”
Monastic Ministering to those who rejected the church or the church has rejected. A “Cultist”– rejecting or replacing the church Jesus

In conclusion, __________________________________________

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