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Chaplains Represent the Presence of the Holy

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Chaplains perform a variety of functions. Depending on the setting, they may counsel individuals and families, advise leaders, teach an assortment of subjects, pray, lead worship, conduct rites and administer sacraments, assist clients with practical matters, and a host of other duties. In some settings, chaplains are recognizably religious. In others, they are hard to distinguish from social workers or psychologists.

Some experts argue that clients should not know what religious body a chaplain represents. In some ways, that makes sense. Clients may draw assumptions about the chaplain’s religion, which could get in the way of effective ministry to the client or lead to disappointment. Those whom chaplains assist do not always belong to the chaplain’s own faith tradition, either broadly or narrowly. Many clients are not religious at all.

Others argue that the people served by chaplains have the right to know who the chaplains are and who they represent. If the therapeutic value of an encounter lies at least partly in the relationship, honesty and transparency are important.

Moreover, the word “chaplain” itself carries a religious connotation. Unless the chaplain explains it away, introducing oneself as a chaplain is to claim a religious identity. That identity may be a recognizable faith tradition, or it may be a diffuse spirituality—but it’s still religious.

Religious identity is part of a chaplain’s usefulness to an organization, whether the chaplain is performing explicitly religious functions or not. Some clients will value it; others will not. Some may be put off by it. Regardless of how it is received, chaplains’ religious identities are an integral part of who they are.

Chaplains represent the numinous. In the communities they serve, many see them as bearers of the holy. They carry the scent of the sacred. 

That’s why so many clients ask for prayer or a word of encouragement, even if they don’t share the chaplain’s religious identity. And that’s why so many value the chaplain’s presence at critical points in their lives, whether the chaplain performs a practical function or not. Sometimes, presence is the function.

And there are people who see the chaplain as good luck. Some might call this superstition. To a degree, that is probably true. Immature religion is pervasive. Still, there is something accurate about that. To be in the presence of the holy is healing and wholesome. To the degree that chaplains represent the presence of the holy, their presence radiates good things for people’s lives. It’s like a heat lamp for the soul.

In the military chaplaincy, this element of ministry is usually called “the ministry of presence.” It often opens doors for other acts of ministry, but it is also valuable in and of itself—particularly if the chaplain is seen as a bearer of the sacred. Rev. Pat Barrett, who for many years served as the United Methodist Church’s endorsing agent, has made this observation, “A ministry of whose presence? My own presence, to be sure, but more than my own presence. We represent the Holy One.”