Perhaps you have an image of what a chaplain is like. It might depend on which walk of life you come from. For those from a military background the ‘padre’ or military chaplain is often well respected, providing support that you cannot get from superior or inferior ranks. For some, a chaplain is the person there at the darkest moments like at the death of a loved one. For many, chaplains will not feature prominently in their life stories, but I have come to think that this is not a good thing.
I have to confess, I had a preconceived idea of what a chaplain would be like. It mainly revolved around the word ‘passive’. I severely underestimated what it is that chaplains do and what kind of people they are. I was privileged to go on placements this year with an almost bewildering variety of chaplains, and that was only just scratching the surface. You may have heard of army, hospital and prison chaplains. Perhaps you may have come across police chaplains or school chaplains. I found out that there are sports chaplains, airport chaplains, shopping centre chaplains, city centre chaplains, nightlife chaplains, gym chaplains, courts chaplains and civil service chaplains and many others. And that is just in the North East of England.
Chaplains come in many varieties, ages and personalities but I noticed one thing that unites them. They all love Jesus and want to be his hands, feet and voice in the world around them and love others as he has loved them. This may look different depending on the person or the context but ultimately the end goal is the same.
This is not an easy job in such secular places as those listed above. At times they may be ignored, sidelined or labelled as irrelevant, tolerated only if they seem to add value to the organisation. For those who stick with it though, there are rewards. I have seen chaplains who are trusted with problems, asked for advice, developing deep relationships and through it all, getting those golden moments to talk about Jesus, not preaching or looking for a quick conversion but from a sincerity and a life lived for God and a long term commitment to loving the people they serve.
The word is not ‘passive’, it’s ‘patience’ and ‘perseverance’. It’s about being in it for the long haul, living life alongside others and sharing in their joys and pain and through it all, loving them for all they’re worth to Jesus. This is incarnational ministry.
You see, it can be trendy in vicar training (is that an oxymoron?) to talk about incarnational ministry in connection with fresh expressions, church plants and pioneering. But these are not new concepts and we would be arrogant in the extreme to assume we have nothing to learn from chaplaincy, which has been doing this consistently for decades. Many Christians will be familiar with the work of street pastors and street angels more than they are with chaplains, but in many ways they are similar missions, just one maybe sounds cooler than the other.
So is that me converted to chaplaincy? Yes and no. Do I think it is worthwhile? Absolutely yes. I have been amazed at the stories I have heard and the opportunities I have witnessed.
As someone who is still called to serve as a parish minister, I have taken lessons from the chaplains. Gone are the days when we would see the whole parish on Sundays. We are left without a way to connect with most of the parish throughout most of their life. Chaplaincy provides us with a model to help us begin to do that. We can go out from our churches and studies and be alongside people, sharing life and building relationships with them. We will absolutely need our congregations to join us in this but we can set the example.
I do not think I could do what chaplains do full time. I admire their perseverance and patient service and I would love to work with them and encourage them in their mission during my ministry.
If you are interested in finding out more about chaplaincy in the North East, check out the Northumbrian Industrial Mission. www.northumbrianindustrialmission.org
We thank you for your heart for all the people in this world. Would you bless and help chaplains in their mission to the people you love and help us to follow their example and be patiently present in the contexts we are called to.
In Jesus’ name and mighty power,
Chris Lee, an ordinand from Cranmer Hall, Durham - following his placement with Northumbrian Industrial Mission in 2016