A few years ago, a board-certified chaplain randomly interviewed people in New York City’s Bryant Park to find out what the word chaplain meant to them. Many simply responded, “A what?” or repeated the question, “What is a chaplain?” back to the interviewer before admitting that they had no idea. Some of those interviewed associated the word chaplain with the military, religion, Catholics, books, and even Charlie Chaplin! A few seemed quite confident in their answers of “a preacher”; “a member of the clergy”; “someone that works in the church”; and “a pastor who serves in the hospital, police department, or fire department.” Except for a woman who stated she was a former chaplain, the majority of adults questioned seemed unsure of their responses.
However, when the interviewer questioned a young boy in a Little League baseball outfit, the child confidently and articulately described a chaplain as “somebody who helps people when they’re in surgery or when they want to talk to somebody. And a chaplain can be any religion.”1 The lad’s simple answer strikes me as quite profound, especially from one so young. Somewhere, somehow, in his limited life experience, he had already begun to form a correct idea of what a chaplain is and does.
I cannot remember when I first heard the word chaplain. It seems as if I have known it forever, but I do not think I paid too much attention to it until a little more than 20 years ago when God began calling me to serve as a healthcare chaplain. I, like the people interviewed in Bryant Park, had little idea of what chaplaincy involved or what was required to be able to serve in it. It has been said that “discerning God’s will for a life is often a lifelong quest” and that “ultimately, people seem to know God has called them to chaplain ministry when they have a passion to ‘carry each other’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:2), to provide ministry to the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:40), and to ‘go’(Matthew 28:19).”2 In my case, discerning God’s will for each phase of my life has more accurately been my experience. Looking back, I can see how my life, up to that point, had prepared me for what He was calling me to do. The parts of me not yet prepared would soon be challenged and still continue to be refined.
What do we do?
Though my calling to chaplaincy was clear to me, the path to get there was not. Without going into detail, I am convinced that I took the long way around, but I am grateful for the detours and the lessons learned along the way. One of my first lessons was how chaplains were both the same as, and yet different from, other ministers. In the healthcare setting, pediatricians (insert specialty of your choice) are physicians. They have studied and completed the requirements to become a physician. But pediatricians are also specialists within the wider field of medicine. Their specialty defines what type of medicine they concentrate on. Pediatricians (or orthopedists, cardiac surgeons, etc.) are to medicine what chaplains are to ministry: specialists within their field.
Just as physician is a general term, so is minister (or pastor). And just as there are many specialists within the field of medicine, so many specialists also exist within the area of ministry. Youth pastor is a specialty, as is evangelist and Bible teacher. Chaplain also designates a specialty of ministry.
Chaplains have training and skills that congregational pastors usually do not have. Areas of chaplaincy can similarly be broken down according to where the chaplain ministers. For example, we would refer to clergy who serve in the military as military chaplains, those working in prisons as prison chaplains, those in hospitals as hospital chaplains, and so on. Within the hospital, chaplains’ designations are further identified according to their particular department (pediatrics, behavioral health, oncology, etc.).
What does it take?
Besides differences in ministry titles and settings, the requirements for becoming chaplains also vary (versus ministers in other settings). The basic criteria for the various chaplaincy branches can differ based on factors such as the employing organization and denominational guidelines. Helpful, detailed lists of requirements appear on the Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM) website3 as well as on the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) website.4 Briefly stated, in order to become a health-care chaplain, a minister must have (1) advanced training, (2) current credentials (signifying pastoral experience), and (3) ecclesiastical endorsement.5
Even though only about 40 percent of Adventist pastors have master’s or doctoral degrees,6 more and more pastors are getting advanced degrees. The same is expected for chaplains. Besides an MDiv (or equivalency), required advanced training for chaplains includes Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).7 During CPE training, chaplains work in a hospital or other health-care setting to earn clinical hours while also attending classes. Such classes include times for group verbatims (word-for-word written accounts describing specific visits). During these verbatims, chaplains review and reflect on what occurred during patient visits and receive feedback from their peers. Feedback provides invaluable insight into possible areas of personal and professional awareness and growth.
Following CPE and 2,000 clinical hours, the potential chaplain must prepare an extensive essay-style application and undergo a face-to-face interview before becoming board certified. Further details regarding board certification can be found at The Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc., (BCCI) website8 as well as the ACM website.
As in other health- and medical-related specialties, health-care chaplaincy also requires a certain amount of continuing education to keep current in the field and to maintain up-to-date credentials and ecclesiastical endorsement. Ecclesiastical endorsement verifies that a chaplain is recognized as a current credentialed minister whose ministry contributions are valued by his or her denomination. It is crucial to obtain and maintain endorsement status to qualify for and remain in a chaplaincy position.
What do we learn?
Once employed as a chaplain, the learning does not end. Even the most seemingly routine patient visits can offer opportunities for growth. Often the lessons come from those being ministered to. Early in my chaplaincy experience, I realized that most people visiting family and friends in the hospital were not there to welcome healthy, rosy-cheeked babies. While I found it a joy to rejoice with those happily greeting the latest addition to their family, I also considered it a privilege—a sacred moment—to be allowed to enter into the pain of a total stranger.
One weekend toward the beginning of my chaplaincy training, when I was the chaplain on duty, I responded to an urgent request from a nurse. She asked that I do a naming ceremony for a young couple’s infant child. On the way to the patient’s room, I was struggling to figure out what a naming ceremony might be. Could it be some kind of a baby baptism? Or maybe part of a christening ceremony? I had never seen a naming ceremony and certainly was not familiar with the process. As I entered the room, I prayed for help to know how to minister to the couple. That visit taught me many lessons—and not just about naming ceremonies.
Being new to chaplaincy ministry, I was not expecting the couple to be so young; neither was I expecting the baby not to be alive. My mind raced as I forced my legs to carry me closer to the bed where the mother was sitting up, holding her lifeless infant. Thoughts such as, Where is their family?; These two seem to barely know each other;and They look like children, themselves crossed my mind. The father stood about three feet away, looking rather lost. As I neared the bed, they both looked up at me with expressionless faces. Calmly, I let them know I was there for the naming ceremony they had requested. As they looked at each other with puzzled expressions, I began to sense that there was more to this situation than I realized. The young father finally responded, “Um, the nurse just kind of told us she would call someone to come and do that thing. We don’t really know what it means.”
At that moment, compassion kicked in. I simply inquired whether they wanted a ceremony at all. After saying they did, I asked what they would like to see happen. When the mother asked whether I could just pray for the baby, baby dedication came to mind. I offered to pray for them as well, and at that point the mother seemed on the verge of tears. She glanced at the father; they both nodded yes. Then she lifted up the baby for me to hold. As I cradled the little girl in my arms and prayed, I remember feeling such a peace at the realization that I was experiencing a sacred moment. This precious young couple had allowed me to share in their pain.
What about you?
It has been said, “All chaplains are pastors, though not all pastors are called to be chaplains.”9 If the qualifications and requirements of chaplaincy are any indication, it is not for just anybody. In fact, it is not for just any pas-tor. Health-care and other organizations that employ chaplains, however, could greatly benefit from those who have a pastor’s heart. If you (or someone you know) feel drawn to chaplaincy, do not wait any longer. Prayerfully take the first step on your journey toward this ministry. Trust in the One who is calling you, and He will accompany you through the entire process. He will equip you for this life-changing ministry—meeting people where they are.
When I returned to check on the bereaved couple, they had gone. Though I would never see them again, the lessons from that young man and young woman remain with me to this day. Lessons about the importance of each visit, being aware of my prejudices and biases, not overlooking the needs of the staff, and really focusing on the needs of the patient and family. They had lost their child; I had found my calling.
1 Chaplain Daniel, “What Is a Chaplain?” YouTube video, 2:55, posted March 3, 2015, by “Professional Chaplaincy,” youtube.com/watch?v=QcgBmQ13dec.
2 Naomi K. Paget and Janet R. McCormack, The Work of the Chaplain (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2006),119.
3 “Chaplaincies/Endorsement,” Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, General Conference, adventistchaplains.org/index.php/about-acm/ecclesiastical -endorsement-2/.
4 Association of Professional Chaplains, professionalchaplains.org/.
5 “Chaplaincies/Endorsement,” Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, General Conference, adventistchaplains.org/index.php/about-acm/ecclesiastical -endorsement-2/.
6 Roger L. Dudley and Petr Cincala, “The Adventist Pastor: A World Survey,” Institute of Church Ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, May 2013, 5, circle.adventist.org/files/icm /gcresearch/2013_ADV_PASTOR.pdf.
7 Accredited CPE training centers can be found at the Association of Professional Chaplains website, www.professionalchaplains.org.
8 “BCCI Certification,” Board of Chaplaincy Certification Inc, bcci.professionalchaplains.org/content.asp?pl=25&contentid=25.
9 “Chaplaincies/Endorsement,” Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, General Conference, adventistchaplains.org/index.php/about-acm/ecclesiastical -endorsement-2/.