The Challenges of Chaplaincy: Standing in Faith

Chaplaincy is not the first arena that people probably consider when they think of a blog frequently focused on liturgy, or music, or ecclesiology, but it has been on my mind the last few weeks as I find myself taking on an additional role. Due to the abrupt departure of a university chaplain, two of us are covering for a number of months, I with the “priestly” parts of Sunday Eucharist and sacramental ministry, my talented partner with the bulk of the work in weekday administration and presence. So far, so good. But as with any chaplaincy position, whether hospital, prison, university, or other, the title assumes that chaplaincy is for all peoples, and more to the point, for people of all religions or no religion. Chaplaincy becomes a double-edged sword, both belonging to a particular expression of the church, while at the same time belonging to the public space, the plaza, where there is a minimum of ‘religion’ and/or overt hostility to ‘church.’ The tension of liminality is hard work when trying not to make a mis-step between those two realities. Looking for clarity was not helped when we reviewed the published descriptions of what the chaplain in our particular school was to do. Here are two paragraphs written by two different previous chaplains:

“[this] is an institution rooted in the Anglican tradition, and that unique identity is what continues to set us apart from [the larger university]. For this reason, the chaplain is always an Anglican priest. However, the chaplaincy service is available to all people, regardless of their background, beliefs or religious identity.”


“Chaplaincy is not about trying to convert anyone into any one way of thinking. It is not about promoting the Anglican Church of Canada, the Christian tradition, or religious belief in general. There are no fees for our services, and no strings attached.”

Those who are chaplains, especially in a university setting, will probably nod their head and say, yes, that’s the way it must be. There is a particular depth of ministry and a freedom of conversation that can happen with, in this case, the Anglican students, potentially different conversations with other Christians, and a third set of conversations with non-Christian, and/or non-religious students. But the latter conversation is often a pastoral ministry of listening, which also means that out of care not to “promote” Christianity, it becomes by default a therapeutic model of ministry, divorced from faith. Regardless of our particular ecclesial allegiance, there is a tension with a description like “not trying to convert anyone” when as baptized Christians we have put on Christ for the world and stand within that identity. In reflecting on education and formation for those to be ordained, The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta wrote:

“recent years have seen a movement away from a therapeutic, care-giving model of the pastoral vocation toward a more robust vision of pastoral oversight. Part of the problem with the therapeutic model for pastors was the uncritical adoption of values somewhat incongruous with Christian ministry…The net result of decades of “nonjudgmental” pastoring has been widespread ignorance of the Christian kerygma, incomprehension of basic theological doctrine, and moral drift.” (2010: The Nearness of God, 112)

Chaplaincy, in its both/and reality, has often suffered from a lack of placed-ness because of the perceived compromise that is therapeutic pastoral care for the sake of peace, at the expense of the baptismal promise to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” How do we do this from where we stand?

In an ongoing reflection on practice and faith with regard to this brief stint in chaplaincy, two helpful lessons from different places come to mind. The first is the gentle clarity of Dr. Judith Berling in teaching on interfaith conversation. She reminds her students that comparative theology is about growth in understanding the other which assumes we begin by learning our own tradition and encounter the other from that place. In the case of chaplaincy, it is not in spite of my baptism, or in spite of faith in Jesus Christ, or in spite of the vows I have made to a specific expression of the body of Christ that I welcome and engage with others, but because of it. It is because of this placed-ness that Christians “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbour…” The second source is the articulation of being ‘between’, being in the ‘middle way’ found in a proper collect (opening prayer) now assigned to the liturgical commemoration of Richard Hooker, the foremost Anglican theologian of the 16th century:O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”

May we find in all our ministries ways of comprehension for the sake of truth, rather than compromise for the sake of peace!


  1. Start by calling yourselves campus ministers or reverends or priests or pastors; whatever you choose to unpack your roles. Please leave chaplain to Board Certified Chaplains (BCCs), we are tired of explaining that many others conflate our calling and vocation, by using the same name. And we serve in hospitals, clinics, elderly centers. Prisons and jails are beginning to require BCCs, and the VA Medical Centers with the military are also moving that way.

    1. In the US, perhaps, but I think you’ll find that in Canada (the context of this blog entry), as well as the UK and other places, chaplains are trained, licensed, and supported by a number of other bodies. This is true for those serving in university, hospital, and military settings–all of whom use the title, “chaplain.”

  2. I won’t speak for BCC’s and other clinical chaplains, as clinical pastoral care is its own beast; I know many a military chaplain has felt the tension there, too. It’s a different style of ministry based in part on religious accommodation in a pluralistic environment. The trick is to learn how to be authentic even as one provides or provides for others. Both extremes — wishy-washy chaplains who go along to get along on the one hand and hard nosed ones on the other — frequently have a difficult time.

  3. As for your title, it is what your institution says it is (even if it is preceded by “interim”).

    In what you say is your main responsibility, “the “priestly” parts of Sunday Eucharist and sacramental ministry,” my recommendation after nearly 40 years in universities is to carry out the rites straight and with dignity, making your adaptation to the people involved in yourself, your personal engagement and care, rather than in the rites. You don’t usually know what ritual variations people have grown up with or come from; the unembellished rites can work like a master key to open the doors to where they live spiritually. Trying to create a chaplaincy “style” stands a greater chance of working very well for a few but being unhelpful to most.

    Your colleague, who has the weekday office visits, etc., will have different challenges.

  4. Having served as a hospital chaplain and military chaplain, the key context for me has always been fidelity to the tradition in which I am ordained (Lutheran) but a caring presence to all who seek my care. All of my ministry, whether sacramental and liturgical or the pastoral care presence is informed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am at all times a Christian, though through Christ I can love and care for the person of a different or no faith at all.

    Lots of years of experience, and the feedback received from those I have cared for have informed me that simply being a “little Christ” to the person in need is the best place to start, and often ends up being the ultimate good to them.

  5. You know, on a personal level, interfaith chaplaincy is a really specific calling, and as generous as you are (or other people are) to step up to the plate when there is a need, over the long run you may discern that your gifts are better put to use in other ways, maybe in roles that place more emphasis on confessional witness and identity.

    I really love that quote about Hooker: “not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” But applying that to every religion and no religion is quite a stretch from its original meaning as a comment upon varieties of Christian faith. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I want to acknowledge the real challenge there.

    Some of my best friends are not Christian, and/or non-believers. I know how to be friends with them, and there is great mutual respect, and indeed I would go to the wall for them, but I would be at a loss how to chaplain them!

  6. Chaplain | Definition of Chaplain by Merriam-Webster
    Definition of chaplain. 1 : a clergyman in charge of a chapel. 2 : a clergyman officially attached to a branch of the military, to an institution, or to a family or court. 3 : a person chosen to conduct religious exercises (as at a meeting of a club or society)

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