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Pastors v. Crisis Chaplains


I have a few nicknames around State Fire. I get called "Chaps," "Chappy," "Padre" (I'm not Catholic, but I go with it) and a few others. But the other day one of my co-workers called me "Pastor Wade." She was very surprised when I informed her I'm not a pastor. A lot of the chaplains she knows in the state are also pastors of local churches. She figured that being a chaplain and being a pastor are the same thing. While pastors and chaplains can be similar, I went on to show her that there are some fundamental differences too.

Chaplain ministry, especially for chaplains who work directly for the government (paid or unpaid), requires walking the line between the two sides of the religion clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution (establishment of religion and free exercise of religion). The US Supreme Court has declared that chaplaincy is a legitimate function of the government when properly done. When chaplaincy is done wrong, we tend to see lawsuits and/or chaplain programs disbanded.

Here are some of the main differences between a pastor and a governmental crisis chaplain.

Pastors - Work for a local church or congregation

Chaplains - Work for government, business or private organization. May be ordained, but this is not necessarily the concern of the state.

Pastors - Are concerned about ministering to those of their own faith or helping covert people to their faith.

Chaplains - May be just about any faith and work with people of many faiths. Normally do not share their faith unless asked. But the chaplain is free to talk about their faith, just as anyone else is.

Pastors - Work mostly within the church walls or at least with people of like-minded faith. Speak on behalf of the church or congregation.

Chaplains - Work in the marketplace among people of many faiths. Chaplains are not expected to “check their faith at the workplace door” when they come to work, but they cannot impose it on others or speak in faith on behalf of others.

Pastors - Deal with doctrines, rituals, and beliefs specific to a faith. May deal in counseling that is in-line with their particular faith outlook.

Chaplains - Deal more with ethical behavior, and in the case of police and fire, crisis response. A chaplain listens more than he/she talks, though counseling is a part of their job. A chaplain may be trained in different types of counseling and walk with people as they live out their lives.

Pastors - Are associated with the church, in the first amendment, with a separation between church and state.

Chaplains - Walk a balance between the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the first amendment. The Supreme Court has established that government-funded chaplaincy does not violate the first amendment.

Pastors - Government sees as primarily religious in nature.

Chaplains - Government sees chaplaincy as secular in nature but does allow limited entanglement where the benefit to the state is secular in nature and is perceived by the public as secular in nature.

Pastors - Deal with rituals and services.

Chaplains - May be involved in limited rituals and services depending on the type of chaplaincy. The government funds many types of chaplaincy. Where the government restricts the movement of people (e.g., military, prison) the government uses chaplains to give people free exercise of religion. Where the government does not restrict the movement of people (e.g., fire, police) the government is more concerned with the clause forbidding the establishment of religion, even though there may be limited entanglement in order to carry out the chaplain’s duties.

Pastors - Usually have to stay outside the emergency response situation.

Chaplains - Are usually involved in immediate crisis intervention. Are part of the police/fire response and free to move within the emergency response situation as training and protocols allow. Are often trained in crisis response and trauma

The US Supreme Court has given us guidance to see if any government action (including chaplaincy) violates the establishment clause of the first amendment. In the case Lemon v. Kurtzman, the US Supreme Court set forth three tests that are the modern standard for government chaplaincy. An answer to any of these test in the negative means such action will not stand up to judicial review. These tests are:

  1. Does the challenged law or other action by the government have a bona fide secular or civic purpose?

  2. Does the primary effect of the law or action by the government neither advance nor inhibit religion? Is it neutral?

  3. Does the law or action by the government avoid excessive entanglement of the government with religion?

In the case where the chaplain is a worker for a para-church or non-governmental organization, they can have more freedom because they are not an employee of the government, just a contractor. But when they are representing the government, even as a non-governmental entity, the public does not always know who they are. They can give the perception that there is a governmental endorsement of religion which would be violating the first amendment. In this case the excessive entanglement portion of the Lemon ruling can act as an early warning system for the possibility that there may be a violation of the establishment clause.

Even with these restrictions, the government crisis chaplain has some wonderful opportunities and very much has a place beside our first responders. As police/fire/crisis response chaplains, we can take care of people when they are facing their worst crisis and can have access to go where the public cannot. We also get to walk with and help first responders as they navigate their sometimes-painful jobs and lives. And as chaplains, even though we share some similarities with pastors, ours is a unique and wonderful calling that allows us to go where others generally cannot.

Chaplain Chris Wade

Vice President South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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