Chaplains Engage

By Sam Sheridan, Sub Contractor

At the end of 2018 I was devouring books on chaplaincy and pastoral care. I did not know what I was looking for, but I was sure that I would find some article or chapter that would help contextualize all I had experienced as a summer hospital chaplain intern. I thought I would find something vitally important, immediately agreeable, imminently soundbite ready that would give me a vocabulary for what I understood about pastoral care. I’d be able to quote or share this thing with everyone for the rest of my life.

A darkly lit photo of a pile of five books sitting on a table.

I ended up finding the opposite. I found something so deeply distressing that I had to go to work figuring out why it was wrong.

I came across a book on chaplaincy for people with severe brain damage or mental disability. This author, whose work I am inclined not to advertise, said that the reason we needed to care for these people is that without our effort to evangelize them they could not be saved, they would be lost and damned forever.

 Well that’s not even a little bit true. That is infuriatingly, blood boilingly, almost the opposite of what I know about spiritual care and evangelism.

My friend, teacher, and mentor Rev. Stacy Williams-Duncan first included me in an independent study where we interviewed Episcopal Chaplains looking for a truly Episcopal theology of chaplaincy. Those interviews gave us wonderful ideas and a lot of material we hope to work with for years to come. It also led us to apply for a grant from the Episcopal Evangelism Society to study and interview further—to ask what chaplains already know that might help us be Episcopal Evangelists in the 21st century.

Our thinking was this: 

Many Episcopalians feel uncomfortable evangelizing. Firstly, we don’t want to be pushy or rude. Secondly, we don’t tend to believe people need to find our exact truth in order to be saved. Finally, many Episocpalians are quick to say, that’s not really my gift. We talk about it like evangelism is a gift, which implies you have it or you don’t. We don’t talk about it like it’s a set of skills, which can be practiced, learned, and honed. But there are people who deeply and professionally believe that talking about God and our spiritual lives with strangers is a set of skills… Chaplains.

Chaplains are trained and certified in the art and science of moving into a space where it isn’t immediately obvious that God should be brought up at all, and bringing God into that space.

Chaplains are accustomed to talking about Jesus when Jesus is welcome in the conversation, and quietly demonstrating the love and compassion of Jesus when it’s clear it wouldn’t be constructive to talk about Him. (Not for nothing, Chaplains also work really hard at learning the difference between those two.)

Chaplains are practiced at contextualizing in real time, making theological reflections and seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in precisely the life of the person in front of them—and they work to recognize when it’s beneficial to point out that Spirit moving.

A bible laying open on a table with a small olive branch lying atop it.

In short, Chaplains really might know a lot about evangelism. They especially might know a lot about a kind of evangelism that fits other Episcopal theology and sense of propriety. They know how not to be pushy or rude. They know how to give people the space to explore their own relationship with God. They know how to hone chaplains’ skills rather than just believing you either have them or you don’t.

The first round of this work, the part done in collaboration with the extraordinary people over at EES, can be found at https://chaplainsengage.com/ There you’ll find podcast interviews with a dozen Episcopal Chaplains from across many different industries and fields and asking for their reflections on both chaplaincy skills and Episcopal Evangelism. We interviewed men and women working as Chaplains in schools, universities, hospitals, military branches, assisted living facilities, and even the Port of Baltimore.

A complex high tech video camera is recording a person who is sitting in an office, the walls are lined with books.

We aren’t done. There’s more to be learned from chaplains, and with time we’ll look at chaplains engaging other areas. These pastoral care professionals can offer us insights in spiritual assessment, theological reflection, managing their religious beliefs in the context of an industry’s superstructure, self care, and theologically sound measuring and reporting of success in our lives and work. There are certainly other things chaplains have to offer, and there is a woeful lack of Anglicans or Episcopalians writing about what chaplains do. How we think about ourselves, other people, and God—and how we manage those thoughts in the context of the rest of the world—are greater areas of witness and wisdom which chaplains navigate every single day in much the same way evangelists must every single day.

We’re going to keep learning from and about chaplains. I hope you’ll check us out.

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