The greatest pastoral needs often arise during transitions or trauma, when people are most likely to consider matters of life and death. As spiritual questions arise, chaplains are available to help people sift through their pain, process questions about God and reaffirm their life’s purpose. Ministers must be present in the “stuff” of people’s lives.
Chaplains affiliated with The Wesleyan Church work in various organizations, including the military, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and hospice institutions. Showing up for people looks very different in each context, but chaplains in every placement offer support, encouragement and resources.
Many chaplains feel God has invited them to be “a common presence for God,” said Annie George, a chaplain for assisted living and hospice in Florida. Because she spends most of her time visiting patients and their families, George finds herself counseling, being present for and otherwise aiding people during the grieving process. She also serves as a safe space for fellow staff who frequently find themselves overworked.
Like the helping professionals she serves, George and other chaplains face high risk of compassion fatigue and burnout. “Self-care is a very important part of my training,” George said. To mitigate that risk, George shares the importance of relationships, hobbies or gatherings with other chaplains.
Because chaplaincy is a pastoral calling that looks different from that of a local church pastor, collegial friendships with local churches and their pastors can also contribute to an ecosystem of care for chaplains.
“My pastor is willing to sit with me, to offer comfort and to help,” said Jessica Miller. Regular coffee check-ins, offers to sponsor a chaplain in personal growth opportunities (like purchasing a conference ticket or a book purchase) or even an invitation to join a safe small group are all ways clergy can care for chaplains in their area. Miller, a chaplain for a medical center in Idaho, was 17 years old when she lost her mother in a tragic car accident. People from the church, family and friends came for support. Miller wondered, “What would it look like to have the words to say when people go through these hard times?” Miller started to pursue her chaplaincy after that experience and has enjoyed being a support to those in the medical center.
Another way to support our chaplains is offering prayer. “Being prayed for and surrounded by people who care is a great help to those engaged in chaplaincy,” said Heather Kern, a chaplain for a correctional facility in Bath, Ontario. Offering this support helps promote good self-care and encouragement that gives courage to those ministering in institutions.
Paul Kern believes the joy of chaplaincy is “seeing the Holy Spirit works in the most mysterious ways.” Kern is a chaplain at Collins Bay Institution, a correctional facility in Kingston, Ontario, who works with inmates inside the prison and offers support to the staff. “I am able to preach the gospel to those who may not be able to hear it,” he said.
Even in moments when words aren’t enough, chaplains share the importance of the ministry of presence in “those holy moments when sometimes we don’t have answers but are able to sit with those in need,” said Miller.
Chaplains are nearly always looking for volunteers. The primary focus they are seeking in their volunteer base is not skill, but the ability to offer presence.
“Presence itself reminds those that they are not forgotten,” said Heather.
“If you have ever been admitted to a hospital for an extended stay or experienced the worry that comes with a family member in hospice care, you may well know the value of institutional chaplains in providing a sense of the presence of God,” said David Higle, director of Clergy Care and Development for The Wesleyan Church. “Institutional chaplains often face unusual and taxing ministry situations such as emergency rooms or with the newly incarcerated. They are some of the unsung heroes of God’s kingdom since they are often overlooked and unrecognized in the church.”
Higle gives tangible ways that Wesleyans can support the work of institutional chaplains.
“Recognize their presence in their own local churches where they worship,” said Higle. “Find out who they are and let them know how much you appreciate how they serve God in this unique way. Also ask if they need financial support for certain resources in their ministry. For instance, prison chaplains might like to purchase certain spiritual resources for those they minister to. Above all, we can support our institutional chaplains by praying for them and those to whom they minister.”
Sarah Linder is a freelance author who lives in Marion, Indiana.