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So What Does a Chaplain Do, Anyway?

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D.
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Last Updated: Jun 22, 2017, 10:17 AM
Date Posted: Mar 23, 2012, 09:29 AM
A few vignettes to begin:

A colleague from another academic department confronts the chaplain one day: “I have always wanted to ask you,” he begins, “about this course you teach on the Bible. How can you grade students on their personal beliefs?”

In the administrative staff meeting, the topic of finding a new chaplain for the school comes up. “I don’t understand it,” one member of the administrative team remarks, “N___ (the previous chaplain) spent a lot of time just talking with students. How can we justify funding a position for something that doesn’t seem so productive?”

The school chaplain is speaking with the school nurse, requesting that she know whenever a student or staff person has been admitted to the hospital. “I like to visit people from our school when they are in the hospital,” she explains. “I am not sure that is a good idea,” the nurse replies. “You might scare them. They might think you are there to deliver last rites.”

 In my first position as a school chaplain, I was sharing some of my confusions and frustrations one day with my spiritual director. As he listened to me, he suddenly smiled and said to me, “You know what you are? You are the court jester, the one who espouses the outrageous at the school!”

There is no position in a school that can be more misunderstood, raise more flags, provoke stronger reactions—both positive and negative—than that of the school chaplain. It is a position that carries with it intense symbolic significance: all one need do is sit in on the initial discussions of the committee charged with searching for a new chaplain at a school to know what intensity, variety and ambiguity this role, in the abstract, can evoke from a group of people charged with crafting a new job description and finding someone to fill that position. To some, the chaplaincy is absolutely crucial for the identity of the school; to others, the wish is that, somehow, this position (and all that it implies) would simply fade away, like other relics of the past. It is not unusual for search committees to be looking for someone who is open, accepting of others who are different from him or her (indeed, accepting of those in the community that question the need for a chaplain in the first place!) and at the same time expect that person to be firmly grounded in a particular tradition. The chaplain should be approachable, down to earth, accessible and at the same time be someone who reminds people of and can lead them to a deeper sense of the holy.

Furthermore, because the chaplain so often comes out of, is canonically responsible to and wears visible symbols of his or her relationship to the church, where that representative of the church fits into the day-to-day life of the school is not always clear. Is the chaplain a “school person,” a “church person,” or something in between? As one writer has put it, the chaplain is someone who dwells between two cities—Athens and Rome, the city of the intellect and the city of faith—while, most likely, not being completely at home or a full citizen in either.1

When I began my work as a school chaplain, back in the early 1980s, the first conference of school chaplains I attended was titled, “School Chaplains: An Endangered Species?” The title reflected the mood of many of those who ministered in schools at that time: this was a role under siege, subject to ever-increasing patterns of secularization in our society. The halcyon days of the ’60s were gone and new questions were emerging about the efficacy and the sheer need to have a chaplain in the school. Today, however, we are actually seeing a modest growth in the number of chaplaincies in schools—some schools are adding assistant or associate chaplains, while others are actually bringing the position back (perhaps with a slightly different title!) out of storage. What is causing this change? Perhaps the re-emphasis upon spirituality in schools, perhaps even the growing religious diversity of our schools and the manner in which that is spurring increased reflection on and programming around understanding our schools in the midst of that diversity.

In spite of the growing need, however, there is a degree to which the role of chaplain will never completely fit within the mainstream of school life and that is how it should be. Chaplains, by their very role, are symbols of something larger than the everyday, business-as-usual way of life in schools. They evoke symbols of the church, the holy, the mysterious and with that evocation comes all of the individual responses people have to those forces in their lives. Their presence makes some naturally uncomfortable, be they skeptics, admissions people who might worry about how the relationship of that school to the church can dissuade prospective students and their families from looking at the school, or those who have felt wounded in the past as a result of their involvement in religious institutions. In an age where a common refrain is, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual,” the chaplain represents what so many say they are not!

In turn, there is always a degree to which the chaplain can feel uncomfortable with some of the ways of school life, be it the intense competition of schools, the prevalence of head over heart, the trends toward specialization or the pace of everyday life in a school. The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, reflecting on the years when he was a parish minister in Detroit and visiting someone in the hospital, recalled how out of place he felt in the modern, sophisticated, highly specialized environment of a hospital. “Sometimes when I compare myself with these efficient doctors and nurses hustling about I feel like an ancient shaman dumped into the twentieth century.”2 A chaplain who does not, at some point in the regular flow of events in the life of a school, feel out of place is most likely losing his or her critical distance, a distance I believe is crucial to the effectiveness of the position in the first place.

Of course, some chaplains find themselves more akin to being adornments than crucial participants in the life of a school. The chaplain is the one brought out to say the blessing on official occasions, or the one clearly in view when alumni/ae return to the school, so to assuage those doubts the graduates might have about the current state of the school. If a school points to its chaplain as the only sign of its historic identification with the church, then not only is it losing an opportunity to make use of a chaplain in powerful and important ways, it is in danger of carrying an important part of its identity on the shoulders of one person.

Whether the chaplain is perceived, or indeed perceives himself or herself, to be at the center of the life of the school or on the periphery, whether the school is confident in its understanding of the role of the chaplain or still struggles with it, there are three pivotal areas that lie at the heart of what a school chaplain needs to be doing, not only for the sake of the self-understanding of the chaplain but also the overall welfare of the school community.


The first is teaching. Even if there is no room in the curriculum, even if it might feel awkward for a chaplain to give grades to students and even if others on the faculty or the college counseling staff have questions about the academic rigors of courses on religion, the chaplain needs to be teaching and needs to be teaching in areas pertinent to his or her training as a chaplain, not to mention areas crucial to the mission of the school, be it diversity or the building of character. I say this for two reasons. The first is that few schools today can ill afford not to devote time in their academic program to helping young people appreciate the variety of religious traditions in the world today, indeed the variety that is present within their very community. Few schools can afford to claim to produce well-educated students without giving them a grounding in the biblical tradition. And few schools can risk educating their students without some specific focus on how to help young people perceive and deal with the world on a moral level. All of these areas are ones that specifically touch upon the academic training of a chaplain and our schools need to be blessed exceptions to the religious and moral illiteracy that pervades so much of our society.

There is a second and more personalized, reason for the chaplain to be teaching. It is one of the great “perks” of being a school chaplain, it is one of the areas that more than compensates for the frequently ambiguous role that he or she plays in the life of a school. Working with students in the area where so much of their time and energy is directed, is, to my way of thinking, a vital necessity for the health and well-being of any school chaplain. Being in the classroom, on a regular basis, makes the other, more diffuse dimensions of the position more than worthwhile.

In John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Lewis Merrill, the local Congregationalist minister, begins to teach religion classes at Gravesend Academy. There he is confronted with startlingly crude language and some outlandish theological challenges to his vocation and beliefs. Though he struggles with this new role, Irving writes, Merrill, for the first time in a long while, actually seems to be enjoying himself. The interactions with the young and the challenges they pose actually perk him up and he seems, in the context of the classroom, to be less meek and downtrodden. Teaching does just this and all chaplains benefit from the experience of working with students in this, the heart of the life of a school.


Secondly, chaplains need to be involved in conversations. By this, I mean the routine, intentional and, on many occasions, the fleeting conversations that take place between adults and students in schools. I may be espousing the outrageous here, but I feel this activity lies at the heart of what we are about in schools. As basic as this may seem to being in a school, it is something that is a particularly important arena of school life for the chaplain. By conversation, I do not mean just small talk, or chatter, or the instrumental interactions between individuals that Martin Buber would characterize as “I-It” relationships. Rather, as a classic book on pastoral care puts it,3 conversations are interactions between individuals where there is an “extra:” another person has had an impact upon us and we are left feeling as if we have been heard, that someone has taken the time to ask about our lives in more than a perfunctory way. These conversations are the way in which our students move, if ever so slowly, toward the world of adulthood.

Moreover, pastoral conversations are those that are, regardless of the topic or the trouble at hand, inherently hopeful interactions. A new perspective has been added to the consideration of those who have shared with us their concerns, how their day is going, or all that is being expected of them. Perhaps a third option has been suggested for what seems to be an either/or situation, or a difficult experience is seen in a more positive light for what it has to teach us. Whatever may be the case, whether the problem—large or small—has been solved or not, the chaplain is a person on campus, at times perhaps the only person on campus, who makes it his or her responsibility to be talking with people in such a way, opening up through informal or intentional interactions the hopeful, the way out of a dilemma and the blessed confirmation that someone is willing to pay attention to them.

The conversations may be fleeting, the student may be surprised by what was originally intended to be a perfunctory interaction that actually took on more substance. Regardless of the intent or context, part of the learning process for students in our schools is the activity of conversation with adults and if our schools are to retain their essential humanity, there need to be people there who play the active roles of conversation starters. These days, a school chaplain is not only a conversation starter, in many cases he or she is the conversation preserver, keeping this fundamental avenue of engagement alive in the fast-paced culture and high-pitched climate of our communities.


Finally, a chaplain is one of the key people when (and, I emphasize, not if) a school endures a crisis. By crisis, I mean those times in the life of a school when business-as-usual must give way, when events and feelings no longer can be contained within the normal flow of school life. There is an incident, a loss, a turn of events and the school must stop and attend to what has occurred. In such moments, the vital role that a chaplain plays becomes very clear. There may be essential and effective instrumental ways of dealing with a crisis—crisis plans, press releases, channels of communication—but the chaplain deals with the human dimensions of the crisis, those areas where all of our preparations and anticipations cannot address the impact these times can have on our students, families and staff. In these situations, the chaplain symbolizes, indeed can evoke, the theological and pastoral resources to help the community wrestle with what has taken place.

It is tempting, these days, to assume that all of our plans for dealing with crises can take care of the sum total of what we experience in crises. The presence of a chaplain reminds us of the residual elements of a crisis that do not fit the plan nor will not go away quickly. As the ramifications of a crisis linger, beyond all of our efforts at closure, so does the chaplain linger, in prayer, conversation and pastoral attention. No wonder I hear, as often as I do, from school heads who say, “We never really knew how valuable a chaplain was until we faced a big crisis in the school.”

I have often thought that one of the ways in which a school can best understand itself is to look at those people who are on the fringes of school life, the ones who might well feel marginalized or who do not quite “fit” the more characteristic mold of the school. Those people can tell a school a great deal about itself from the standpoint, indeed the wisdom, of the margins. Some may not know what to do with them, but we would be less as a community without them. It turns out that the margins, far from being a forsaken place in the life of a school, actually are a crucial place for that community, a place where insight, hope and inspiration can reside. It is no coincidence, then, that the school chaplain is so often in that very place, ministering to the center by virtue of the perception and power of the margins.

1. See Donald G. Shockley, Campus Ministry: The Church Beyond Itself (Louisville: The Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 48-57.
2. Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (Chicago-New York: Willett, Clark & Colby, 1929), 24.
3. See Heije Faber and Ebel van der Schoot, The Art of Pastoral Conversation (New York-Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965).

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., is executive director of NAES. He gave this address at a gathering of the chaplains, school heads, bishops, and school board chairs of the Diocese of Toronto, Anglican Church of Canada, March 4, 2008.