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Chaplains—so who are we?

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Archives / 2018 / July



Chaplains—so who are we?

Paul Anderson

Paul Anderson, DMin, a retired United States Navy chaplain, serves as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries for the North American Division, Columbia, Maryland, United States


Chaplains are duly trained, credentialed, and often board-certified ministers of the gospel who work in specialized ministry settings beyond congregational confines. Chaplaincy is a post-pastoral specialty of the called that requires pastoral identity, competence, experience, curiosity, and compassion. A mantra for the profession is, “All chaplains are pastors, but not all pastors are chaplains.”

Chaplains are men and women who possess that special blend of passion, compassion, and knowledge, compounded by a willingness to contact, connect, and journey with people and families who are experiencing existential transitions, trauma, grief, or a myriad of personal experiences.

Personal conviction

Chaplaincy in the United States was institutionalized during the Revolutionary War. President George Washington was convicted that chaplaincy be a priority for the regiments that he commanded. He wrote to the United States (US) Congress expressing his ardent demand that chaplains be made available to his troops. His opinion was that the presence of chaplains regulated the morality and enhanced the morale of his soldiers.

Congress not only supplied and funded the establishment of the role of military chaplains, they established and have perpetuated the office of chaplain for the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.

Originally, chaplains were pastors with notoriety who were appointed to their role by potentates within their sphere of influence. An effective preacher or leader would be selected and empowered to function in a specific role within a context beyond the walls of his or her church. More than a personal conviction, contemporary  norms require a professional preparation before assuming the title of chaplain.

Pastoral competence

The gold standard for the profession of chaplaincy requires that an aspirant earn five levels of professional competence. The first is the academic acquisition of a master of divinity degree, or equivalent, from an accredited seminary. The second is the development and honing of a denominationally specific pastoral identity. This is achieved by gaining at least two years of post-seminary pastoral experience. The third is denominational credentialing and/or ordination. A chaplain must be a credentialed, professional clergy person. The fourth step in becoming a chaplain is denominational endorsement for the specialized ministry of choice. The fifth step requires board certification within the chosen specialty.

Professional certification

For health-care chaplains, there are 14 board certifying agencies in the US. The two primary agencies are the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) and the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP). Some large and peculiar faith systems, in order to meet the high standard of professionalism without compromising distinctive elements of faith, have established parallel and equal accrediting organizations. The Roman Catholic Church has established the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC). Neshama is the Association of Jewish Chaplains. Recently, the Seventh-day Adventist Church launched the Adventist Chaplaincy Institute (ACI) as a cognate agency to APC and CPSP.

The International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC) is the certifying agency for law enforcement chaplains. Their requirements for board certification include five years of pastoral experience, denominational and agency endorsement, specialty training, and community review and approval.

Community chaplains  who respond to crisis situations are required to have specialized training and certification through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). The Seventh-day Adventist Church has an internationally recognized agency that trains, certifies, and deploys volunteers to assist in times of national or community crisis. The Adventist Community Services (ACS) department is the certifying body for pastors preparing for endorsement as community chaplains.

The National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC) was established at Yale University in 1948. It was to be, and became, a collegial forum for spiritual leaders with a bent for specialized ministry to young adults on academic campuses in North America. It purported the advocacy of religion and spirituality on the campuses and dialogues of academia. Cognate organizations have flourished since then. The North American Division Campus Chaplains Advisory (NADCCA) and Public Campus Ministries departments are the advocacy arms of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for college and university chaplains.

So who are we?

Chaplains can be found working on the campuses of colleges and universities, in prisons, and in health-care facilities. Law enforcement and fire and emergency management/ response departments often employ or call upon chaplains during crisis situations. Sports teams are regularly contracting team chaplains. Coaches have discovered that having a spiritual mentor available for their athletes provides another dimension of personal development and character stability. Corporations began hiring chaplains after World War II. In the current milieu of diversity awareness and appreciation, chaplaincy has morphed into titles such as life coach and personnel development specialist.

Wherever they serve, chaplains are pastors with specialized, mission-focused ministries. They bring hope, healing, and compassion to people who find themselves in hard times or dark places in their lives. Chaplains are the hands, feet, and heart of God reaching people in places where churches might have neither relevance nor opportunity. Thank God for chaplains. 

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