Who Can the Chaplain Be?

The chaplain often feels neither fish nor fowl (and is often seen the same way), but the author envisions a unique role.

John K. Lee is chaplain of the Bangkok Adventist Hospital, Bangkok, Thailand.


Everyone, it seems, has a different idea of what the work of a chaplain ought to be—even chaplains themselves.

Everyone agrees, in light of increasing knowledge of psychosomatic medicine, that spiritual care for the patient is important. The concern (and the disagreement) seems focused on the identity and role of the chaplain, who provides that spiritual care. Is he a "quack psycho therapist" who focuses inordinately on counseling? Is he a paramedical worker doing the same job a social worker does? Has he lost his calling as a minister? Among some church leaders and ministers the idea is voiced, "The chaplain ceases to be an effective soul winner the moment he steps into the hospital." In response, some chaplains have defiantly replied, "Chaplains are counselors, not evangelists!"

Who can the chaplain be? Indeed, who ought he to be?

As a chaplain, I believe that there is a unique work for me and my colleagues to do in the hospital. The chaplain has a special calling. He is not a paramedical extension of the institution, nor an amateur psychologist. He is a minister with a special work to do—a work that inevitably sets him apart from his peers in parish ministry, and requires that his ministry be evaluated on a somewhat different basis, but he is a minister nonetheless.

Medical science has demonstrated repeatedly the close relationship between one's emotional and physical natures. Numerous physical diseases can be traced to a problem in the mind. Conversely, diseases may also give rise to emotional problems. Ellen G. White emphasized this connection: "The relation that exists between the mind and the body is very intimate. When one is affected, the other sympathizes. The condition of the mind affects the health to a far greater degree than many realize." —The Ministry of Healing, p. 241.

In the same passage she lists the conditions that cause disease: "Many of the diseases from which men suffer are the result of mental depression. Grief, anxiety, discontent, remorse, guilt, distrust, all tend to break down the life forces and to invite decay and death" —Ibid.

While the union between mind and body is widely recognized, many do not realize that the emotional problems that cause disease are more often in the realm of religion than in psychology. Of course, psychology deals with these problems, as does also social work and psychotherapy. But a closer look reveals that the root difficulty is one that religion addresses particularly—the problem of sin.

Guilt comes from sin, and causes a broken relationship with God in which faith is destroyed. Distrust, doubt, and uncertainty follow. Hope vanishes, to be replaced with anxiety and fear. Remorse and discontent grow out of sin. Thus the root of those emotional problems that weaken physical health and cause dis ease is sin.

Psychologists may deal with sin in a superficial way. They may understand the human results of sin as manifested in the misery of human suffering and mental anguish. Yet psychology cannot fol low the problem of sin to its final solution, for that lies in the realm of religion. The plan of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ is the only answer to sin.

Herein lies the uniqueness of the chaplain's work. He is a minister of the gospel bringing the good news of salvation to people in crisis. Because of the unusual circumstances of the people to whom he ministers, he needs to be aware of the emotional problems that are often related to sickness. This psychological knowledge provides him with the tools of ministry, but his ministry goes beyond that of counseling psychology. He is a representative of God, bridging the gap between suffering humanity and God's rich gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Some have sought to define the chaplain's work of pastoral care and counseling in theological terms as "forms of religious ministry which integrate the findings of behavioral science and theology in the effort to prepare the way for divine-human encounter in the midst of human crisis" (Edward Thornton, Theology and Pastoral Counseling, p. 27). But it is impossible to bring about a divine-human encounter without the element of faith. It is faith, then, which is lacking in humanistic schools of counseling, that is the identity of the ministry of a chaplain.

"The Saviour ministered to both the soul and the body. The gospel which He taught was a message of spiritual life and of physical restoration. Deliverance from sin and the healing of disease were linked together." —The Ministry of Healing, p. 111.

"To take people right where they are, whatever their position, whatever their condition, and help them in every way possible this is gospel ministry. It may be necessary for ministers to go into the homes of the sick and say, 'I am ready to help you, and I will do the best I can. I am not a physician, but I am a minister, and I like to minister to the sick and afflicted.' Those who are sick in body are nearly always sick in soul, and when the soul is sick, the body is made sick." —Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality, p. 764.

A chaplain needs to understand the mind. He needs knowledge from behavioral science and must be well versed in the technique of counseling in order to understand the emotional problems of the sin-sick soul. To meet the patient where he is means to find him in a condition of suffering, pain, dying, worry, fear, anger, doubt, and other negative emotions. At times, some may even be in a state of joy and celebration. Some may be indifferent. For others who have deep emotional problems, surface conversation will be inadequate.

Ellen White, in stating the qualification of a chaplain, stressed: "It is of great importance that the one who is chosen to care for the spiritual interests of patients and helpers be a man . . . who will have moral influence, who knows how to deal with minds." —Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 546.

In this way, knowledge of behavioral science and methods of counseling be come means to an end, and not the end itself. A chaplain is not a psychologist or a counselor by profession, for his ministry transcends the human knowledge of psychology and counseling. He relates with the patient and thus interprets to him the experience of salvation and grace. The content of divine-human en counter is the forgiveness of sin, and God works through His ministers to bring about this experience.

If, in the work of a chaplain, the means becomes the end, and the chap lain loses track of his calling as a minister, his work will degenerate into a psychological and counseling parody of what it ought to be. On the other hand, a chaplain who is unwilling or unable to take advantage of advances in the field of behavioral science will be ineffective in ministering to the sick and communicating the gospel to the patient.

A chaplain finds his uniqueness as a minister in the midst of human suffering in the hospital. Thus he has a golden opportunity to represent the love and grace of God. The shortness of an aver age hospital stay, though too short for an evangelistic approach, is long enough for the patient to experience the saving grace and love of Jesus as represented by the chaplain. His ministry prepares the way for future evangelistic approaches. The ministry of a chaplain is therefore not primarily evangelistic, but pastoral and preparatory. Paul said, "According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it" (1 Cor. 3:10, R.S.V.).

As the chaplain learns to accept the uniqueness of his ministry, may the church also come to terms with this uniqueness. Perhaps then we can focus our energies not on the question "Who can the chaplain be?" but on the question "How can I be more effective in the ministry given me of God?"

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John K. Lee is chaplain of the Bangkok Adventist Hospital, Bangkok, Thailand.

April 1980

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