What Is Chaplaincy?


            One of my favorite shows on television was the show M*A*S*H. A character I always resonated with was Father Francis Mulcahy. The Father was a character who knew his place in the operating room and passionately performed his duties when called. Whether counseling patients or staff, praying for the sick and dying, he cared deeply for those under his charge. In one memorable scene, Father Mulcahy spoke a powerful prayer, and all the Catholics made the sign of the cross when the prayer had ended including Corporal Max Klinger. “Klinger, I thought you were an atheist?” asked Father Mulcahy. “I gave it up for Lent,” answered Klinger.

            This scene demonstrates the power of the chaplaincy. Father Mulcahy was able to meet the spiritual needs of all present in the operating room, respecting all beliefs and traditions while fervently holding on to his own. In the practice of chaplaincy, the chaplain must frequently balance the needs of the care receivers over personal beliefs and practices. But what exactly is a chaplain? Are they pastors, administrators, or are they some a hybrid of multiple functions? In this essay, I will give Biblical examples of chaplaincy, differentiate chaplaincy from other ministries, and conclude with answering the question: “what is chaplaincy?”

Biblical Examples

            While chaplaincy not explicitly mentioned in the Biblical text, there are many examples of chaplain type ministries happening through the Old and New Testaments. One does not have to look very far before stumbling upon a Biblical character acting in a way now ascribed to a chaplain. The key is to look at how, why, and to whom benefitted from ministry.

            For example, the leaders tasked by Moses in Exodus to hear and address the needs of Israel’s people in Exodus 18 have similar functions to that of chaplains in that they “judged” people and settled disputes. Chaplains can have similar roles in that they are called upon as a neutral party, working with people to resolve issues and conflicts. Another Old Testament role is that of the priest and rallying Israel’s military during battle. Numbers 10:8-9 recounts how the priest encouraged the people in a time of war. Even the ancients saw that it was essential to have a spiritual representative during a time of military conflict.

            The New Testament version of chaplaincy is described more as a set of principles as opposed to individual examples (although there are examples to be sure). In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus presents a parable where he describes the final judgment of humanity. Here is his main emphasis:

“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in;  I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:35 CSB)

These are all practices of a chaplain. The average Christian takes the passage as principles on how to live a life of love to others. The chaplain reads it as a vocational calling – a job description. Jesus explained in the parable that outward expression of love to others holds a great deal of weight in eternity.

            Another example of chaplaincy by principle is the book of James. James spends his letter giving practical advice on how to live a life that is Godly. The bottom line for James is that by showing love for others, we are practicing out what we believe. “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27 CSB). Care for those who are hurting and do not let evil defile who you are. A chaplain who understands this can enter the prison, the war zone, the disaster area, the hospital room and minister to the hurting with an undefiled heart.

Differentiation of the Chaplain

            The call of God on a person’s life is a call to ministry. Holy Spirit equips the believer for the ministry he or she is commissioned. The chaplaincy is different from other ministries in two distinct ways. First, the chaplain represents the faith tradition and the institution. Second, the chaplain is a minister of their faith in a pluralistic environment. A pastor of a church may perform some of the same tasks as a chaplain, but he or she does not have to adhere to the rules and structure of an institution outside of the church or denomination. A missionary, like a chaplain, may go into foreign and even dangerous environments. However, unlike the chaplain, they are there primarily to evangelize. The chaplain’s role is to minister to whoever is put in their path, respecting all faith traditions.

            The chaplain is a part of the institution. This institution or system is outside of the faith tradition of the chaplain. The chaplain is a representative of their respective faith tradition but adheres to the culture of the institution and the rules of that system. Crick and Miller look at it this way:

The role of chaplains is to assist an institution in maintaining a humane system that values the lives they serve. What is meant by systems? Are they limited to kingdoms and nations? No. Systems are not limited to those functioning realities that govern a church body or even a nation. They can be as small as a family unit or a group of friends. What Scripture shows is the possibility and hope of reclaiming these systems for their created purposes: communities that give rise to spiritually, physically, and emotionally healthy and interdependent individuals.[1]

            A Muslim chaplain working in and for a hospital is there as a representative of Islam in the mission of caring for other Muslims who are in a health crisis. That chaplain cannot go outside the bounds of the rules and regulations of the hospital. However, they also do not lose their identity as a Muslim. To minister to those in the hospital, they must strongly cling to their faith heritage while at the same time ministering to those in the hospital may or may not share that same faith. Overall, the hospital – the system or institution – benefits as do the patients in that hospital. Doctors and nurses care for the body while the chaplain, in conjunction with the medical team cares for the soul. The chaplain is a part of the system and at the same time uniquely identified by their own faith.

            The second differentiation has to do with pluralism. Because the chaplain is a member of the system and that system is agnostic to faith traditions, the chaplain is not a proselytizer of their faith. The Mormon prison chaplain is not in prison to make other Mormons. The Mormon chaplain is there for all the prisoners, regardless of religion or even lack of a faith. The Mormon prison chaplain will care for the atheist inmate as well as the LDS inmate. Equal passion and advocacy for each inmate mark a chaplain’s call. In discussing military chaplains, Crick and Miller sum it up:

The best chaplains are those who are very secure in their faith persuasions yet have a deep appreciation for the faith development of other individuals, their history, and their beliefs. The best chaplains are those who see pluralism as an opportunity, not a problem, are interested in people of different persuasions, and can creatively minister to and with them without violating their own religious doctrines and practices.[2]

Conclusion: Defining Chaplaincy

            With the biblical basis in hand along with the differentiation of the chaplain’s ministry form other ministries, there needs to be a final definition of just what a chaplain is. The description can be somewhat of a moving target as it can depend on the system or institution to which the chaplain is connected. However, there is some commonality that leads to a generalized definition of the ministry. Paget and McCormack attempted such a description by looking at the historical roots of the ministry:

The origin of the word chaplain comes from the early history of the Christian church. Traditionally, a story relates the compassion of a fourth-century holy man named Martin who shared his cloak with a beggar. Upon the death of Bishop Martin, his cloak (capella in Latin) was enshrined as a reminder of the sacred act of compassion. The guardian of the capella became known as the chapelain, which transliterated into English became chaplain. Today, the chaplain continues to guard the sacred and to share his or her cape out of compassion.[3]

            The ministry of chaplaincy is inherently a caring ministry. Caregivers are giving comfort to care receivers. In the documentary Chaplains: On the Front Lines of Faith, Fr. Hurley states: “When soldier entered the battlefield, there was always a representative by their side.”[4] Oregon Prison Chaplain states: “… (A) chaplain leans into the painful places.”[5]  Therefore, chaplaincy defined is the ministry of caring, pastoring, administrating, and supporting others in a system or organization that is outside the faith tradition of the chaplain. Further, the chaplain is a representative of his or her faith tradition and ministers to those who share a similarity and those who differ from that faith tradition within the context of the organization’s culture and rules. An Evangelical Christian addition to defining the ministry of the chaplain includes Biblical traditions and principles that stem from a need for spiritual aid in an otherwise non-religious setting.

            The chaplain can go where the missionary and the pastor cannot. The chaplain is not a pastoral but is pastoral. The chaplain usually cannot evangelize for their faith, but they can deliver care to those outside of their faith. In defining chaplaincy, there is tension in that definition. But it is precisely that tension that makes the ministry so powerful.

[1] Robert D. Crick and Brandelan S. Miller, Outside the Gates: the Need for Theology, History, and Practice of Chaplaincy Ministry, revised and expanded ed. (Oviedo, Florida: Higherlife Development Services Inc., 2011), Kindle Edition, Location 598-603.

[2] Ibid, Location 2674-2677.

[3] Naomi K. Paget and Janet R. McCormack, The Work of the Chaplain (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2006), 2.

[4] Hurley, Fr. Paul. Chaplains: On the Front lines of Faith, Amazon Prime Video. Directed by Martin Doblmeier, Journey Films, 2015.

[5] Thompson, Karuna. Chaplains: On the Front lines of Faith, Amazon Prime Video. Directed by Martin Doblmeier, Journey Films, 2015.

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