What makes a particular ministry a chaplaincy?

Rather than giving a simple definition in a couple of sentences it is much better to think about what is typical of chaplaincy and look at some examples of what chaplains say about themselves.  Not every chaplaincy will show all of these characteristics, whilst many Christian ministries which do not think of themselves as chaplaincies will share some of these features. 

Ministry beyond the walls - to where people are 

  • "Chaplains are... the Church that has left the building." (Revd Dr Martyn Atkins)
  • “Nine out of ten people will not be in church on Sunday, but nine out of ten people will be at work on Monday and the chaplain needs to be where those people are." (Airport Chaplain)

It may not be strictly true that 90% of us are in paid employment, but the point is clear that there is a great need for Christians to be seen and known outside of our church buildings our worship and our church meetings.

Chaplaincy work takes Christian pastoral care beyond the visible boundaries of the Church, it is an invitation and an opportunity to go out into our wider communities. Chaplains seek to go out to people rather than wait for people to come to her/him.

An invited guest and not the host 

Churches usually like to play the host – we often think of mission as inviting people to come to us and be one of us. When we invite people to join us we may not realise just how difficult that can be. To come to our church can mean being asked to fit in with our ways of doing things – liking the same worship music that we like, being free to come to worship at the same time as we are. 

However gracious, welcoming and open we are it can feel uncomfortable to come into a church as a visitor and a guest. The chaplain, however, is a guest invited into the school, the care home, the workplace, the shopping centre. Learning to be a gracious guest is a typical characteristic of chaplaincy.

  • “Knock, knock
    I knock on the door and slide into the room.
    You look at me from your bed, wondering who I am.
    I look at you and smile, hoping to appear calm and friendly.
    I explain who I am.
    You look wary, but do not tell me to go away.
    I ask if I can sit down" (Hospice chaplain)
  • “We are in other people’s territory following other people’s rules.” (School Chaplain)

Vulnerable - not powerful

When we are the hosts, no matter how gracious we are, we still hold power and make the rules. As a guest the chaplain has to give up power and be vulnerable. Chaplaincy is not an easy ministry: it involves taking risks and giving trust. Jesus “emptied himself taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7).

Chaplains do seek to influence the organisations and places where they work but they do not have power to make things happen.

  • “I enjoy the excitement of what chaplaincy can be... you have to be quite fluid and there is something reasonably unplanned and chaotic about the whole thing.” (Agricultural Chaplain)
  • “Meeting their agenda before we seek to meet our own.” (School Chaplain)

Commissioned by the Church and accredited by the host

Chaplains don’t act on their own authority, they are sent and supported by the Church. There are many ways in which this can happen – some of them quite informal. Chaplains also need to be recognised by the host communities and organisations who receive them.

There are many ways in which Christians serve their local communities through acts of love and kindness. For most of these we do not need anyone’s permission. Chaplains, however, typically need permission to enter – we have to negotiate access for chaplaincy to take place. Chaplaincy is a very public ministry. You can’t just nominate yourself as chaplain to the local supermarket – it has to be agreed with the store management first!

  • “I think Church affirms and helps me and then I take that back and take Church into the chaplaincy situation.” (Workplace Chaplain)
  • “Come and live alongside us for a bit so that you are part of what we do not an add on." (Headteacher talking about school chaplains)

An intentional presence - rather than gathering 

So much of Church life is about gathering people together – for worship, for prayer, for meetings or for service. It is quite unusual for chaplains to be able to gather people together for worship. Instead chaplains work by being a Christian presence, but this presence has to have a purpose. We must be clear about our intentions, about what we are here for.

  • One RAF chaplain tells a story about attending a meeting at which targets for bombing were being discussed. The meeting decided not to bomb any of the suggested targets because of the risk to civilians. This was the first time in the campaign that one of these meetings had “turned off” all of its targets. Although the chaplain had not spoken during the meeting the commanding officer was left wondering how much difference the presence of the chaplain had actually made to the decision.
  • "I want to be a blessing to the school.” (School Chaplain)

Sometimes chaplains make a difference just by being there, but only when it is clear to everyone what the chaplain stands for.

A method for Christian Mission- sharing in what God is doing in the world

Chaplaincy is one of many ways in which we do mission. Whenever we do mission we are joining in with what God is already doing in the world. Chaplains try to do this in places where it is not obvious to look for God.

Chaplaincy isn’t a role or an office for a few specialist people, it is a method or way of doing mission. This means that chaplaincy is very adaptable and works well in a variety of different situations.

  •  “It’s amazing to see the adaptability of chaplaincy. We can do chaplaincy in a place where people are screaming across at each other and shouting out the price of potatoes.” (Marketplace Chaplain)

Because chaplains are guests they are careful about the way they do mission, beginning with service and looking for opportunities to take conversations and relationships deeper. Sports Chaplaincy UK describes the work of their chaplains as “pastorally proactive, spiritually reactive”.  

  • “...the friendly face, the cup of coffee, the chat – all that lays the grounding for the deeper moments in life, which they will bring to you. You’ve no need to raise them - when things go wrong they’ll know where to find help.” (Workplace Chaplain)

Banner photo: © Revd Langley Mackrell-Hey/Shine Photographics, TMCP