The Holy Aura of Chaplains and the Realm of the Sacred

Chaplains perform a variety of functions. Depending on the setting, they counsel individuals and families, advise leadership, teach an assortment of subjects, pray, lead worship, conduct rites and sacraments, assist clients with practical matters and a perform host of other duties.

In some settings, chaplains are recognizably religious. In others, they are hard to distinguish from social workers or psychologists.

I recently heard an address given by the president of a professional organization which board-certifies chaplains. In his speech, he argued that clients should not even know what religious body a chaplain represents. Clients will make assumptions about the chaplain which will invariably get in the way or lead to disappointment. In a way, that makes sense. Those whom chaplains assist do not always belong to the chaplain’s own faith group, either broadly or narrowly. Many are not religious at all.

He also said that chaplains should keep prayer out of the relationship. Again, I understand his point. Prayer doesn’t mean the same thing across traditions, or sometimes even within traditions.

I don’t think, however, that the speaker was correct. I think the people we work with have the right to know who we are and who we represent. If the therapeutic value of the encounter lies at least partly in the relationship, honesty and transparency are important.

Moreover, the word “chaplain” itself carries a religious connotation. Unless you explain it away – “No, I’m a secular humanist chaplain” – to introduce yourself as a chaplain is to claim a religious identity. That identity may be an recognizable faith tradition or it may be a diffuse contemporary spirituality, but it’s still religious.

This 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, our religious identity is an integral part of who we are.

Even those who are not religiously observant call the chaplain “padre.”  One artillery unit gave me the radio call sign “Holy Thunder”. The name was a statement about my identity, not about my function on the radio. Tactical radio is not a channel for religious speech. Another unit rewrote my religious support annexes using the English of the King James Bible. Annexes are technical components of military plans and orders, in this case describing how chaplains will support the unit during an operation. They are not religious treatises, but the G3 staff dressed them up in holy language. That’s how they saw me, even in my secular function of a military planner. We can never escape our religious identity and we should never try.

Chaplains represent the numinous. In the communities in which we serve, we are seen by many as bearers of the holy. We carry the scent of the sacred.

That’s why, in my experience, so many constituents asked for a prayer or a “word of the day” from me, even if they were not of my faith group, and even if they did not think of themselves as religious. And that’s why so many people valued my presence at critical points in their lives, whether I performed any practical function or not. My presence was the function.

In the Army, troopers want the padre in their convoy or on their aircraft. Crudely put, the chaplain is good luck. Some might call this superstition. To a degree, that was probably true. I can’t say how people of other religions might judge it, but as a Christian I know that there is a lot of immature Christianity out there.

But I think there is something correct about the notion itself. 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 a chaplain’s 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. It is valuable, that is, if the chaplain is actually seen as a bearer of the sacred. That’s why it is so important that we always represent the one who sent us, and not just ourselves.

For many years, Pat Barrett served as Endorsing Agent for the United Methodist Church. I remember her writing once about “the ministry of presence” and I was taken aback by a question she asked. The question has stayed with me ever since:

A ministry of whose presence?

My own presence, to be sure, but more than my own presence. If God is not present, I don’t have anything different to offer than the behavioral therapist. Don’t get me wrong. Other helping professions provide valuable services to their clients, but chaplains have something unique to offer. We should never give that up.