What is a Chaplain?
Let’s set the record straight
By Norris Burkes
In the 18 years I’ve been writing this column, many readers have shared their impression of what a chaplain is. And more than a few have certainly told me what a chaplain is not.
A few readers are certain that a chaplain must be exclusively a man—not a woman or any other gender identity.
Ten years ago, I was working with a woman named Susan Cosio when she took a phone call from a Baptist deacon looking for me.
When the man asked her if she was my secretary, Susan emphatically told him, “No, I’m a chaplain too.”
“They have women chaplains now?” he asked.
Susan simultaneously gave me both the phone and a well-deserved stink eye, saying, “It’s one of your Baptist guys.”
Once I wrote about the tingling sensation I felt while getting a haircut from a beautiful Vietnamese barber. When I confessed the tingling to be lust, a reader left an indignant message on our hospital department voicemail.
Susan and 10 other chaplains heard this woman exclaiming, “You should be ashamed of yourself. A chaplain isn’t supposed to lust!”
And, yet, we do.
I also get angry on rare occasions and use words like “damn” or “hell.” Some readers told me that a cursing chaplain shouldn’t be trusted with a syndicated column.
But the hardest assumption to tackle is the notion that all chaplains are exclusively Christians.
No worries. I’m a Christian, so you can pick up the spoon you dropped in your cereal.
As often heard during my undergrad at Baylor University, “I’m Baptist, born-and-bred, and when I die, I’ll be Baptist dead.”
So, you ask, “If a chaplain needn’t be a Christian, what defines a chaplain?”
A chaplain is one who often works in an institution caring for the spiritual needs of others. He or she elevates the spiritual concerns of the patient, inmate, student or soldier above his or her personal beliefs or needs.
That means if I come to your home in my capacity as a hospice chaplain, I’m going to assess what you need to celebrate your faith. If you need some eagle feathers or crystals, I’ll find them. If you need to see a shaman, I’ll find you one. If a Hindu wants to talk about the Bhagavad Gita, I’ll listen without debate.
This impression causes some readers to accuse me of hiding my faith. Not true. As I show a patient respect, they often ask what I believe, and I share the God that Jesus came to reveal. I might even recount how, as an 8-year-old, I wandered down the center aisle of my church during a tradition known as the altar call, declaring that I wanted to be a Christian.
I’m sure that experience set me on the chaplain path, but I don’t wear the hospice chaplain title today because I’m a Christian. Hospice didn’t hire me solely on the fact that I’ve earned the prerequisite chaplain degrees or come from the right Baptist pedigree. Hospice hired me because they saw a pattern of setting aside my own personal faith assumptions and elevating the patients’ needs above my own.
It’s the same quality I see in Gerald Jones, director of chaplaincy at my local hospital in Roseville. Gerald is a Mormon.
If I were admitted to his hospital, Gerald knows that the Book of Mormon isn’t my thing, so he would offer a caring prayer, an inspirational Bible reading, but mostly a listening ear tuned to my spiritual traditions.
This is the kind of care you can expect from a good chaplain—to be on your side. If all of this sounds like a job you’d like to do, I hope you’ll learn more at professionalchaplains.org.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 thechaplain.net/speaking.