August 1, 2019

What Is a Chaplain?

What do they do? What do you need?

Mario Ceballos

Chaplains are clergypersons (pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, purohits, etc.) authorized by their denominations to perform all sacramental functions. They are ministers assigned to the whole range of institutions where clergy work—schools of all grades, police and fire departments, corporations, military, health-care institutions, governments, prisons, sports teams, cruise ships, radio stations, airports, other workplaces, and many other settings.

As a major resource for those who seek more information on this vital area of ministry, I recommend the widely available book, The Work of the Chaplain, by Naomi Paget and Janet R. McCormack.

General History

The word “chaplain” dates back to the fourteenth century:

“Chaplains (Latin, cappellani) were so called because they kept St. Martin’s famous half cape (cappella, diminutive of cappa). This sacred relic gave its name to the tent and later to the simple oratory or chapel where it was preserved. To it were added other relics that were guarded by chaplains appointed by the king during the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, and particularly during the reign of Charlemagne, who appointed clerical ministers (capellani) who lived within the royal palace. In addition to their primary duty of guarding the sacred relics, they performed royal mass for the king on feast days, worked in conjunction with the royal notaries, and wrote any documents the king required of them. In their duties chaplains thus gradually became more identified with direct service to the monarch as advisers in both ecclesiastical and secular matters. The practice of kings appointing their own chaplains spread throughout western Christendom. Many of the royal chaplains were appointed bishoprics and the highest offices in the church; and down to the present day the British monarchs have appointed their own royal chaplains. British monarchs still appoint the members of the Royal College of Chaplains, whose duties now involve little more than preaching occasionally in the chapel royal.”1

The most common uses of chaplains today involve the military, health care, educational institutions, prisons, and police and fire departments. Areas of ministry have not diminished in today’s hypersecular world: people everywhere still struggle to cope with traumatic events.

University chaplains are sometimes called to minister to students who find the lifeless body of their roommate hanging in a dorm room. Hospital chaplains need to be there to accompany the emergency room nurse walking with a dead baby in her arms looking for a blanket in which to wrap the cold body. Police chaplains need to listen to their colleague officer trying to make sense of her most recent call, in which she had to assist in a horrific multicar crash, or to help a distraught woman who saw her only two children die. Warrior servants need a chaplain when their fellow soldier is sliced in half by an improvised explosive device (IED). Prison chaplains must continue to minister after they and inmates prove incapable of stopping a fight, and witness one inmate hacked to death by a fellow inmate.

As an unbiased part of the care team, chaplains are valuable in providing a safe harbor and bridging difficult conversations.

These traumatic job hazards inflict grievous mental “scars.” Without correct treatment they cause permanent damage that affects multiple basic behaviors such as sleeping and eating; they produce mood disorders that can lead to death—by suicide sometimes.2 Lives can be changed instantly: spouses are left  widowed; children become orphans; parents bury their children, as the sky seems to fall. Tragedy will not end as long as we live on this earth, but chaplains can help someone start to pick up and, hopefully, start to put the broken pieces of their lives back together again. For chaplains themselves to survive and continue ministering through these traumatic events (PTSD), self-care is of vital importance. Knowing when and how to care for themselves can be the difference between survival and burnout.

Academic or Educational Chaplains

Navigating the halls of academia and establishing good rapport with school leaders can be filled with obstacles and challenges. Earning respect and building trust with school personnel deserves the time put in. Sitting on significant committees—dean’s council, disciplinary committee, administrative committee, and others—helps chaplains gain an understanding of what is going on in the administrative leaders’ world. Chaplains may participate in many committees, and, through these committees, improve acquaintance and understanding of people and their needs.

Much of educational chaplains’ time providing counseling and spiritual guidance is similar to the time and work between pastors and their congregations. Beyond this, there are things specific to the student population. Lots of these are university “firsts”: loss of a grandparent or friend; first funeral attended. Successful high schoolers may for the first time experience failure or perhaps not being the smartest one in class. Chaplains may help students deal with their “firsts”; they can provide faith-specific counseling in times of stress or grief, or simply offer a listening ear to a nonreligious student whose mind is precisely as curious about the world as academe is intended to foster. Chaplains may lead campus worship services, run meet-and-greets, or organize meal programs. Good ethics does not allow proselytizing within such a breadth of clientele and obligations.3

Hospital Chaplains

In hospital chaplaincy, professionally trained clergy provide spiritual care to patients and staff with spiritual and religious concerns. They are clinically trained to help navigate the specialized world of health care, and are specially trained to support belief systems across faiths and cultures.

In order to better meet patients’ needs, chaplains receive more than 1,600 hours of training focused specifically in health-care settings. This clinical pastoral education (CPE) prepares them to act not only as spiritual counselors but as advocates for patients and staff. Their training and presence ideally contribute to better decisions about care, improve clinical outcomes, and enhance the morale of staff as well as patients and visitors. The trust they establish with patients transfers to other members of the care team, leading to better care and better outcomes. As an unbiased part of the care team, chaplains are valuable in providing a safe harbor and bridging difficult conversations.4

Corrections Chaplains

Chaplains assist corrections administrations in the fulfillment of inmates’ religious and spiritual rights as required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.5 In this capacity, chaplains help prisoners adjust psychologically to incarceration, aid in reduction of recidivism by helping them find meaning and purpose, assist with acquiring job-skills training, communicate with family, and support reentry into the community through resources and access to social networks.

Chaplains adhere to absolute confidentiality and are prepared to handle work-related issues, combat stress, deployment, marriage and family, substance abuse, and grief.

Inmates who engage in religious practices are less likely to break rules in prison.6 Chaplains who show that they care can be an inspiration and encouragement to individuals who suffer from the loneliness that incarceration imposes. Included in this meaningful, life-impacting role is attentiveness to varied needs in religion, diet, reading, and otherwise. Despite reduced opportunities for one-on-one attention, chaplains may assist staff and guide volunteers in managing the institutional program to the benefit of inmates whom they know, and whose feelings and wishes they know and care about.7

Police Chaplains

Police chaplains may be called upon to assist in death notifications, assist and support victims in times of crisis, respond to suicides, and serve as part of a crisis response team. They visit sick or injured personnel, are a resource for counseling for members of the agency and their families, and serve as liaisons with other clergy in the community. They are called upon to deliver the invocation or benediction at public ceremonies as representatives of the police department. They also are on hand to serve inside the police department.8

Police officers, from rookie to veteran, auxiliary to chief, highly value the resource that chaplains represent. They are seen as a great help, not only in crisis or on the street, but also when officers’ emotional health is in peril.

Military Chaplains

Military chaplains are the military’s experts in religious matters, and are responsible for tending to the spiritual and moral well-being of service members and their families. Besides church functioning, including conducting services, chaplains visit with service members, develop religious education programs and religious youth activities, conduct seminars and retreats, accompany service members into combat, advise commanders on religious and moral matters, and provide not only combat stress support but also counseling for service members and their families.

Though not typically licensed clinical counselors, chaplains can be counted on to adhere to absolute confidentiality and are prepared to handle work-related issues, combat stress, deployment, marriage and family, substance abuse, grief, finances, etc.9


In the military, at the hospital, at the forefront in times and instances of high delight and profound trauma, from moments of birth to seasons of death, chaplains can be counted on to be there.

Yet when the disaster strikes they cannot break under the pressure: their empathy does not allow them to collapse under the strain of suffering, the pressure of pent-up emotions, or the weight of horrible circumstance.

Considering what they must regularly witness and share firsthand, they may be forgiven for crying out with Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16, KJV).  But they need not lose heart. For one answer of the Lord, elsewhere, to Paul, is still true and still good enough for all: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). Chaplains may find their sufficiency in Him (2 Cor. 3:5).

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  6. Thomas P. O’Connor and Michael Perreyclear, “Prison Religion in Action and Its Influence on Offender Rehabilitation,” abstract, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 35, no. 3-4 (2002): 11-33, accessed Feb. 23, 2016.

Mario Ceballos directs Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.