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Why Is a Chaplain Here?


"When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberating power for nuclear man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip. - Henri Nouwen (The Wounded Healer, p. 9)

The other day I heard this statement, “Chaplain came to talk with me, but it seemed kinda weird.” I didn’t get to ask any follow-up questions, but I was left wondering. What happened in this situation? Are we meeting the needs of the people we are called to serve? Did this chaplain have an agenda that didn’t fit with the worldview of the first responder he/she was ministering to?

Our nations rising number of “nones” (people who claim no religion) may mean more and more people will ask, “why is a chaplain here?” While we, the chaplains, know our job is to take care of people whether they share our faith or not, I wonder about the stereotypes we must overcome, especially in the Bible belt. In light of these stereotypes are there good things we can take advantage of? Do we embrace those opportunities? Are the expectations turning more negative, and if so, how do we overcome them? Our message of love and compassion hasn’t changed since St. Martin of Tours, but the culture sure has. How have we adapted?

Many hospitals are struggling to justify the use of chaplains these days, mainly because many of them have chaplains on the payroll. Hospitals don’t charge for chaplain services or get reimbursed by insurance or Medicaid, so chaplain service is an easy cut in the budget if the hospital doesn’t see their value.

It’s different with fire and police chaplains. Most us are volunteers. And struggling public safety organizations don’t want to turn away volunteers. But we still need to demonstrate our value as full members of the department.

Questions I ask:

  1. Does our command staff really understand what we do and its value to the overall mission of the agency? This can be hard since a lot of what we do is out of sight. We are not writing tickets for traffic infractions or putting out fires. Our work is all about the soft (but extremely valuable) services, like taking care of people and speaking into what it means to live this human experience.

  2. Even though the non-religious folks may not initially understand why the chaplain is there, do they come to appreciate the uniqueness of our ministry?

  3. Are others doing the job we should be doing? Where does the chaplain fit in with the employee assistance program, mental health practitioners, and peer support?

  4. What stereotypes have we inherited? Can we use these for our advantage? What ones do we need to actively oppose?

  5. Are we keeping up with training to be the best possible resource to our first responders and community while staying true to our mission as chaplains? What kind of training do we need?

If we, as chaplains, don’t address these issues, our profession is in danger and others will take over the roles that we have championed over all these years. Or worse, nobody will.

I’d love to hear from you about any of these questions. Feel free to comment under this article on our Facebook page.

Chris Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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