Funny You Asked

No question stumps our chaplain

By Norris Burkes
May 2021

Before the quarantine, I often traveled the country, speaking before church and civic groups. After I spoke, I hosted question-and-answer sessions.

I’ve not yet booked post-COVID speaking engagements, so I thought this column would be a good place to share the answers to some frequently asked questions.

Dear Chaplin Burkes. Why does my email come back as “undelivered”?
Dear Reader. I’m not a mime and my first name isn’t Charlie. I mention this because chaplain is commonly misspelled as Chaplin, like the comic actor and director. My title, C-h-a-p-l-a-i-n, has two a’s, which spells the difference between Charlie, the comedic genius, and Norris, the opinionated chaplain.

How did you become a newspaper columnist?
In the summer of 2001, I took my son on a Boy Scout camping trip where I met Tom Clifford, then editor of Florida Today. After I shared chaplain stories around the campfire, Clifford asked me to send him some drafts for a spirituality column. It seemed like an easy gig until Tom asked me to begin by writing a spiritual response to the attack on the World Trade Center.

How can I become a newspaper columnist?
Unless you know Tom, you’ll need to take your chances with a syndicate like Tribune Media, Hearst or Creators. As they did with me, they’ll likely refer your proposal to Helen Wait. Meaning, “If you want your own column, go to Hell-n-Wait.”

What kind of email do you get?
Aside from one I’ll get from my mother chiding me for my potty-mouth answer to the previous question, I get sad ones, mad ones and lots of sweet ones. The first two are those I remember most.

Do you answer them all?
Mostly, just not always in a timely or coherent manner. However, I’m no Ann Landers, so I don’t offer personal advice or engage with political or theological issues.

How much do you get paid?
About half as much as I did five years ago or a tenth of what you think I get. If I gave an actual figure, thousands of idealistic journalism students would dropout and flood the fast-food job market.

Are you Democrat or Republican?
To keep my meager salary, I decline to answer.

How long does it take you to write your column?
Which column do you mean? My first draft? Or the 15 revisions that follow? (The real answer is 12–15 hours.)

Where do you get your column ideas?
From news events, family stories, chaplain experience or the Bible. Sometimes I don’t have any ideas. Then I write columns like this one.

How long have you been writing this column?
It’ll be 20 years in October.

Do you live here?
Define “here.” I write for 35 papers nationwide from my home in Auburn.

Can you come to our town to speak?
Yes. Like the Old West circuit-riding preachers, I’m a have-Bible-will-travel chaplain. I’m fully vaccinated and raring to return to public speaking.

What is your educational background?
I have a double major in journalism and religion from Baylor. I have a Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction from Pacific and I’m halfway through my master’s in journalism from University of Nevada, Reno. (No one ever asks that question, but I thought it would be fun to tell you.)

What kind of minister are you?
I’m a “recovering Baptist.” I attend a 12-step group where we must acknowledge that there’s a higher power than the Southern Baptist Convention. The true answer depends on the day. I’m often a sad one, a confused one, a happy one or an empathetic one.
Today, I’m just a wisecracking chaplain who hopes to have given you a smile or two.

Norris Burkes can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit

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