What Is a Chaplain? Everything You Need to Know

What Is A Chaplain?

Though chaplains play vital roles in professional, medical, military and other contexts, those roles are not always well understood. Chaplains provide spiritual care, but what does that really mean?

What Does A Chaplain Do?

For one thing, chaplains are not “fixers.” They are not social workers or psychologists, though some theory and methods in those fields overlap. Instead of coming up with solutions to people’s problems, chaplains help that individual navigate their own life’s circumstances and feelings, allowing them to truly experience them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Chaplaincy is also not necessarily religious in all situations.  If the person wants prayer or religious resources, the chaplain can easily provide, yet the chaplain is much more.  His or her professional training and ability allows the chaplain to tend to the human spirit that are beyond religion and mere spirituality.

How Do Chaplains Provide Spiritual Care?

A good chaplain learns to linger with the person who they are caring for in their emotions and be a truly engaged active listener to their story. A chaplain meets people where they are, providing sensitive, thoughtful care for the other person in their emotional, spiritual and psychological state. Chaplains help people find meaning in their lives and experiences.

Chaplaincy can take the form of any of the following:

A wife waits alone for her husband to come back from open heart surgery, unsure if he will survive.  A chaplain listens to her, acknowledges her fears and accompanies her in her pain.

A young teen with mental illness in a residential program whose trust for adults has been burned by the foster care system is playing basketball by himself. The chaplain asks to join. 

A young professional is overwhelmed by financial circumstances, a difficult marriage, teenage kids while all in social isolation.  The chaplain is that unique person who the professional can feel comfortable sharing his life’s experiences, putting him at ease that everything is confidential and serving only his own interests.  

A tired, stressed nurse sees a flyer from her hospital’s Spiritual Care department about Nurses’ Week.  She goes to receive a special blessing from the chaplain on her break, who expresses appreciation for her hard work. 

An older woman in a day program for people with dementia sits alone on a bench, not talking or looking at anyone. The chaplain introduces herself and sits down. They enjoy the silence together.

What Can a Chaplain Do For You?

A chaplain can meet diverse emotional and spiritual needs. Chaplains aim to make genuine connections with others and make them feel seen. They strive to validate the feelings of those they encounter, making them feel that they are not alone.  That someone understands them or at the very least, wants to understand.  Though the chaplain possesses a degree of authority, a chaplain’s greatest teachers are those they serve.