Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Chaplains as Ministers

I was looking back at the conversation on PlainViews regarding Volunteers in Chaplaincy. You can look back at my comments here by checking my posts under the Volunteers label in the sidebar. You can find the posts on PlainViews in the Advocacy column. Look for articles on 8/16, 11/1, 11/15, and 12/6.

One sidelight came up for me. At least two colleagues took issue with my comments about chaplains being “advanced practice ministers.” They were concerned at my observation other allied health care professions made a distinction between levels of function within a broad professional purview.

Do chaplains have this separation, this designation of levels of function? At first it would not appear so. However, that reflects our failure to recognize ourselves within the context of ministry. The normative context of the believer is the local congregation, and the normative clergy is the clergyperson of the local congregation. Like the registered nurse, there are a variety of educational paths to becoming a clergyperson in a congregation, depending on the specific requirements and culture of each faith community. Still, there is so much in common across those specificities that ecumenical community clergy groups can become important sources of support.

I would suggest that we think of ourselves, as are advanced practice ministers. There are others—academics, spiritual directors, monastics—but that is where we are in the context of ministry.

For the concerned colleagues, to say we need as chaplains to see ourselves within “the context of ministry” was to tie our work closely – too closely – to the authority of the local congregation, and to deny that we functioned as allied health professionals.

Now, the second concern seemed easily enough addressed. After all, as I noted elsewhere, school nurses work in schools and provide some education, but we still recognize them as nurses. A physicist may work in research, or teach in high school or college, or work as radiation safety officer in a hospital. Their practices are different, but all are rooted in their training in physics, and in all of them they are physicists. So, while the most common experience a believer has of a cleric is in the local congregation, missionaries and health care chaplains and school chaplains and church administrators, each in their different venues, all continue to be ministers.

But I have to admit the first concern never crossed my mind. You see, I’m an Episcopalian, an Anglican. In the Anglican tradition, all ministry is first and foremost Christ’s, exercised in and through the Body; that is, the Church. And for an Anglican, the Church is, first and foremost, the whole Church. The Church is not the assembly of local congregations, but the Body of Christ. The local congregation is derivative of the whole Church, and not the other way around. Notwithstanding all the current arguments within the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church, there is consensus within the Anglican tradition that all ministry is an expression of the ministry of the whole Church, the whole Body, and not simply of an individual congregation.

In that image, I often speak of chaplains as the fingertips of the Body, reaching out and touching the tender, hurting places in creation. That is, of course, a function that all Christians are called to in one sense of another. However, we are quite self-consciously there, tips and fingers and hands, to provide sensitive and delicate touch to fragile and wounded persons.

For some colleagues, that may be entirely too theological, ignoring pragmatic considerations. Some come from traditions where the theology of the Church does hold that the whole Church is the assembly of congregations. Some of us – perhaps many of us – are sufficiently out of the mainstream within our own faith communities that any apparent link of our own individual ministries to local congregations and congregational clergy seems to undermine the independence and the openness that are hallmarks of clinical ministry. Some of us – and, again, perhaps many- have had to fight so hard to be recognized as professionals functioning within the clinical context that any acknowledgement of our accountability to our faith communities, faith communities that may not appreciate or accept the academic and scientific culture of the clinical world. There may be a number of reasons that colleagues may be anxious about acknowledging “the context of ministry,” if that is too closely associated with the local congregation.

I realize, too, that I write as an Episcopalian, a Christian. I cannot write otherwise: I respect and appreciate my chaplain colleagues who are not Christians. I can speak to their traditions in only a limited sense. I can’t speak from their traditions at all.

At the same time, my observation as one who has worked with and listened to non-Christians for many years is that all persons of faith have some sense that ministry serves the community of faith, is shaped in fundamental ways by it, and is accountable to it. That must necessarily include the ministry of the chaplain. That would suggest that within some faith communities the ministry of the chaplain would be impossible. It simply wouldn’t fit within the community’s understanding of the ministries to which a person might be called. With that in mind, while I can only speak as a Christian, I believe that my colleagues from other faith communities can translate the concepts into the forms of their own traditions.

So, I will stand by my position: professional chaplains are advanced practitioners in the field of ministry. We find our practice in health care, and serve congregations made flesh often in one person at a time. We spend much of our time planning for accreditation surveys instead of weekly sermons. But we are first and foremost ministers, carrying into rooms of anxiety and suffering the care and compassion of the faith communities that called us forth.

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