When I started my work as lead chaplain here at the hospital two years ago, I had to take my ID badge back to human resources the very first day to be reprinted with the correct spelling of my title: it’s chaplain, not chaplin, thank you.
Since then I’ve discovered that other people here also spell chaplain like Charlie’s last name. Still others greet me in the corridors as “pastor,” giving themselves away as churchgoers. Both are indicators that plenty of people don’t really know what I do. This is understandable in my hospital, which for six years had no full-time chaplain. But it’s also true inside the church.
Because chaplaincy includes ministers serving in diverse settings—health care, military, workplaces, institutions—it’s difficult to characterize our work in a few simple statements. In each setting, chaplains face unique opportunities and challenges shaped by particular gifts, training, and needs. What we have in common, though, is a ministry location outside the church walls.
Being a chaplain seems a particularly significant gift and responsibility in a time when fewer people are going to church (though it is remarkable how often a patient will ask, “So where’s your church?”). Chaplains do not proselytize, but every day we encounter individuals who are clearly vulnerable to the gospel yet turned off by the institutional church for one reason or another. So what we say can make a spiritual difference.
And so does the way we say it. In his book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson contrasts the three languages of ministry: kerugma (preaching); didaskalia (teaching), which the church knows well; with parakaleo, which, he says, it isn’t as good at, even though it’s the language of the Holy Spirit. This is the language of relationship—interpersonal, encouraging, intimate speech—the native tongue of chaplains. The church should spend as much time and energy training its leaders in this language as it does training them to preach and teach.
Through its chaplains and campus ministers, the church has a share in Jesus’ ministry “outside Israel.” This is different turf than the congregation, where the pulpit is front and center. There is no pulpit in my hospital. Font and table? Sometimes. Faith? I come across it every day. The faith Jesus never found in Israel found him in the Canaanite woman and in a centurion, and Jesus’ response was to both marvel and bless these strangers, people he would never see again.
We are also privileged to witness faith, sometimes great faith, in unlikely people and moments, with the same wonder and blessing. This past spring I watched adult children extend to their dying father a grace he was never able to give to them. I visit cancer patients who are quietly but valiantly fighting the disease that has marked their lives for years, sometimes decades. A woman with pneumonia from too many nights sleeping under a bridge asked if she could pray for me. We are invited into the sacred spaces of complete strangers, invited to comfort and to bless.
But it is also true that we usually do not know where the blessing we offer will lead. Chaplains accept this—it goes with the territory. In the years to come, a lot more ministry will be done in this territory, where we cannot count results. So chaplains and campus ministers can help the church better practice what it preaches: “One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase.”
About the Author
Rev. Philip Apol is lead chaplain at McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital in Lansing, Mich.