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“I have not left the ministry!”

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Archives / 2018 / July



“I have not left the ministry!”

Richard O. Stenbakken

Dick Stenbakken, EdD, a retired chaplain (colonel), United States Army, is a speaker and author residing in Loveland, Colorado, United States.


I remember, vividly, when I was returning from Vietnam as a United States Army chaplain, a pastor asked me, “So, what made you decide to leave ministry to become a chaplain?” The semi-smirk on his face made his meaning crystal clear: chaplaincy is not real ministry.

While that incident was many years ago, that same thinking still wafts around ministerial discussions. Be assured, chaplaincy is dead-on center when it comes to ministry. In fact, in various communities and institutions, chaplaincy is a ministry of presence where a local pastor cannot have easy, or sometimes any, access to meet the spiritual needs of people. These chaplaincies are a true reflection of incarnational ministry where ministry is done by someone who, fully part of the group, ministers to that group from an inside perspective rather than trying to impact the system from the outside.

The institutional setting

Chaplaincy also has become an intensely refined ministry in a variety of institutional settings, ranging from hospitals and correctional facilities to the military, campus, industry, and other venues. Institutional ministry has similarities to other kinds of minis-tries—but also one very big difference. The marked difference is that, as a chaplain, while ministry is done for the people (staff, patients, inmates, commanders, physicians, nurses, and others in the institutional setting), it also encompasses ministry to the institution.

Institutions are unique in that they have their own history, backgrounds, customs, dress codes, culture, and even language. Essentially, an institution is a subculture of its own. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to minister to an institution from outside the institution. Becoming part of the organization affords the opportunity to develop an identity that is recognized and, therefore, opens doors to ministry that otherwise would not only be shut but, in many cases, locked.

Chaplains, in general, have direct access to the institutional leadership in ways not available to those outside that institution. As an example, in the military, the chaplain is expected and required to interact with the commanders on issues of morale and morality. A local pastor would not have that access on a military installation; nor would the pastor have that kind of access to a workplace where a parishioner is employed.

Chaplains are expected, and welcomed, to interact with the decision-makers in the institution (campus, hospital, or other settings) where they are assigned. If Fred works in a manufacturing plant, his pastor would be seen as out of place trying to seek contact with the plant manager or even a foreman. However, if Jane is working as a medical technologist in a hospital or Don is down-range in military training, the chaplain would be welcomed and not at all out of place. In fact, the chaplain is expected to be there.

The spiritual role

Religious and spiritual services are offered to all, with some selecting the chaplain as their pastor on a more inti-mate basis. A chaplain either provides for or provides the religious care for those served, as the individuals request or need (mirroring the many occasions on which Jesus asked those He encountered, “What do you want?”). If a prison chaplain encounters a Buddhist inmate who wants religious services or contact, a Christian chaplain would arrange for someone with a Buddhist background to provide for the needs of that individual. That is part of the challenge/opportunity of chaplaincy and it is markedly different from the role of a parish pastor.

Chaplaincy is both centrifugal and centripetal by nature. It is centrifugal, in that the chaplain goes out to the people; centripetal, in calling people into a smaller, more intimate religious community.

The high bar

Over the past years, chaplaincy has become much more professional, demanding high levels of training and functioning. The bar keeps getting higher and higher as institutions increase entry-level requirements. In a health-care setting, most employers will require a graduate theological degree plus several quarters of clinical pastoral education (CPE).2 The military and virtually all federal chaplaincies require a master’s of divinity degree from an accredited seminary, with two or more years of pastoral experience before one can even apply.

Hospitals in the United States must meet the standards of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health-care Organizations (JCAHO) to help maintain credibility in the institution. Part of the hospital accreditation process is to assess the chaplaincy program to ensure that those serving as chaplains are trained, prepared, and professionally recognized. If not, the hospital can take a “hit” that can degrade the overall score with JCAHO and have a negative impact on the hospital’s accreditation and, therefore, its ability to attract third-party payments.

Multitasking, multiculturalism, and diversity

Being a chaplain also means an ever-expanding circle of contacts with people and chaplains of all faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Assignments often include a wide variety of tasks, including visiting, preaching, teaching, mentoring, training, fund management, personnel management, supervising and being supervised, ongoing educational and professional training/upgrades, and policy development. A military chaplain has to pass all the physical fitness requirements, be prepared to deploy with their troops at a moment’s notice, and serve wherever assigned. That assignment can mean prolonged separation from home and family and exposure to the rigors and dangers (as well as opportunities for ministry) in actual combat situations.

Women are highly desired and respected within chaplaincy because they bring different points of view and ideas to the ministry team. Both the United States (US) Army and US Air Force have had women serve as chief of chaplains at the two-star (major general) level.

One key piece in any institutional chaplaincy is the ability and willingness to work closely with people who come from vastly different religious backgrounds and to do so with grace while not compromising one’s own religious standards or beliefs. To say the least, it is an ongoing learning experience to work cooperatively with peers with whom there are theological points upon which you will never agree but with whom you can and do minister on behalf of the institution and those therein.

I can tell a myriad of stories proving that chaplains are vital. A counselee was able to get an understanding of and release from something that had tormented her for most of her life. Her husband was there, with her, when she said, “Thank God! I have waited thirty years to release this; now it’s gone.” He had no idea how deeply hurt she had been many years before they were married. He only knew something was broken, and they came to get help.

Or a first sergeant who had deep marital and other problems. Some of his men threatened to kill him, so he put two bullet holes through his door, then called for the chaplain. When I responded, he still had the .45 in his hand and half a bottle of whiskey on his table. When I stepped into his place to see what was going on (I had no idea), he leveled the .45 at me from about 10 feet away and told me to shut and lock the door behind me. After some harrowing time together, he put the gun on the table and settled down, and we were able to get him help before he hurt someone or himself.

There are celebrations too. Such as the young Jewish woman who was deep in grief because she could not seem to conceive, and in her family being a parent was paramount. She came to a Christian chaplain for prayer and counseling. We prayed together and looked at Scripture together, and she was able to release her needs to God. Several months later she came back with the news that she and her husband were expecting. She came back with the baby later and asked for a prayer of thanks and blessing.

Being a chaplain is a privilege. Sometimes scary, sometimes dangerous, sometimes filled with celebration, but never boring because chaplains make a difference in people’s lives. Chaplaincy is an opportunity to mirror the incarnational ministry of Jesus: to be where people have needs and to help them cope, grow, and build a deeper walk with God. So, to answer the query of that long-ago question, becoming a chaplain was not leaving ministry. On the contrary, it propelled me into a ministry that is wider and deeper than anything I had ever imagined or experienced before.

Are all called to chaplaincy? No, but as for me and my house, it is an energizing, fun, and challenging ministry that continues to unfold in new and exciting adventures. Chaplaincy is a calling, a profession, and a ministry opportunity that few options will ever equal. It is worth prayerful consideration. Would it fit everyone? Not at all. Is it truly ministry? Absolutely.

Sidebar: The Story of Mary

By Dick Stenbakken

I was half a world away from my family in Vietnam as a unit chaplain. It was a Saturday night, and as I entered my pitch-dark office, my brain virtually screamed, “There is someone else in this room!” That is creepy anywhere, but in a combat zone, in utter darkness, it puts your adrenaline into overdrive instantly. In a millisecond, various thoughts raced through my mind: Run for your life! Duck down! Back out slowly! Don’t move! Move as fast as you can! Turn on the lights! No . . . that will give them a better shot! Keep in mind that,as a chaplain, I served on active duty without a weapon, both by my personal choice and by Geneva Convention and US Army regulations.

My hand swept down the wall to the light switch, and the dark room was flooded with light. Then I saw him. His eyes were wider than mine. He was cowering in a corner to my left, wide-wild-eyed, open mouthed, and obviously terrified—one of the troops from our unit. Before I could say anything, he spoke in a quavering voice, “I just saw the devil!” His visage told me that it might well be true. My first thought was that, maybe, I needed to look over my shoulder, just in case.

“Sir, thank God it’s you, Chaplain. I saw the devil tonight, and I’m scared! That’s why I came to your office.” The words tumbled out of his trembling body. No doubt about it, he was shaking with terror. His eyes were bloodshot, his face flushed. Tears left clean trails down his face as he sat on the floor hugging his knees while he rocked back and forth in the corner of my office.

“You came to the right place,” I said more calmly than my blood pressure would have indicated. “You are safe here. Tell me what’s happening.”

For the next hour, Marty poured out his heart: all of his hurts, challenges, fears, and needs. I listened attentively, and as he wound down, I asked whether he would like for us to pray together. “Oh, yes! I need that, I really do,” was his eager reply.

We prayed together, and he calmed down. When the prayer was over, Marty turned and asked, “Chaplain, do you have a Bible that I could have? I really need to read the Bible and get my head on straight.”

“Sure, Marty,” I said. “I always keep some pocket-sized New Testament and Psalms with me. Here, take this one.”

“Thank you, sir! I’ll read it, I really will! And, thanks for listening and caring. Hope I didn’t scare you too much,” he said with a smile.

I returned his smile saying, “Well, you did surprise me, but maybe God has some surprises for both of us.”

He was in chapel for the services the next morning. Smiling, he held up the Bible I had given him the night before. I found out from some of the staff that Marty had quite a reputation. He was known to have a red-hot temper and to be more than willing to have a drink with the guys. It was suspected that he had been into drugs as well. Drugs and alcohol were too readily available, and some of the troops used marijuana and alcohol to ease the stress of being where they were. Heroin was readily available and inexpensive. Had Marty seen the devil, or was he hallucinating? It really did not matter. He had sought contact with me, his unit chaplain, and left with a friend and a Bible.

About a week later, Marty came running up to me as I was entering the mess hall. “Chaplain! I need a Bible!” he said with a broad smile.

“Sure, Marty,” I responded, “Take this one.”

“Thanks!” he shouted over his shoulder as he trotted off.

A couple of days later, Marty approached me again with another request for another Bible. My thought was, Maybe he has more problems than any of us know. Maybe he just forgot that I have given him several Bibles. The additional puzzling thing was that he seemed happy, enthusiastic, and more cooperative in the unit than he had been before.

A couple of weeks later, one of Marty’s friends came up to me and blurted out, “Chaplain, what happened to Marty?”

In a combat zone that question can have a myriad of connotations, most of them envisioning less-than-happy answers.

“What do you mean?” I asked, mentally bracing for what I might hear.

“Well, Chaplain, Marty is one of the perimeter guards, you know.”

Yes, I knew that, and it only heightened my concern. Perimeter guards were often the first to be hit by the enemy if they tried to penetrate the perimeter of our base.

The young man shook his head and continued, “Marty used to be one of the biggest fighters, drinkers, and druggies in the unit. We were all kind of afraid of him. But lately, well, he has changed. I mean really changed. I have seen him talking with you, and I want to know what has happened to Marty.”

Before I could answer, the young soldier told me, “Just the other day, when we were changing guards at the wire, here comes Marty with his M-16 on his shoulder—and a Bible in his hand. We hardly ever saw him without his Bible.”

“So, what happened,” I asked.

“Well, sir, one of the guys spouted off to Marty and said, ‘Hey! Marty! You gonna be a preacher or something? Always packin’ that Bible around with you!’ ”

“As quick as a flash,” the kid continued his story, “Marty does this left turn, marches up to the guy, grabs him by the collar, puts his Bible right up to the guy’s nose and says, ‘Listen here. You better take this Bible and read it for yourself. If you don’t, I’m gonna rearrange your face! Got it?’ ”

“And,” the kid continued, “he gave me this Bible and wants me to read it. Sir, Marty has changed. He’s off the booze and stuff, and he is really a different guy.”

All I could do was stifle a smile. Now I know why Marty was asking for more Bibles. While I did not agree with all of his methodology, it was apparent to the whole unit that something had happened to Marty. He had changed his direction, and he wanted others to experience changes in their lives as he had. Our “chance” meeting in my darkened office had started a change in his life that neither of us could have predicted. I think it was not a chance meeting at all. It was a Divine appointment—and I was privileged to be a part of it.

I do not change lives; only God can. But God used me in a unique situation in a unique ministry to bring His change to Marty. That’s chaplaincy. 

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1 Dick Stenbakken has authored several books, appeared on over 50 TV programs, and produced eight DVD sets. His web page is www.biblefaces.com.

2 See Judith R. Ragsdale, “Transforming Chaplaincy Requires Transforming Clinical Pastoral Education,” Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 72, no. 1, (March 2018): 58–62, doi.org/10.1177/1542305018762133.

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