One of the difficulties of defining our roles as chaplains today is that life is so unsettled. I have had great difficulty coming up with a neat job description that still leaves me open to respond to the needs of the day. The realities of life have their own life, and don’t seem to recognise neat job descriptions.
In adopting an open stance to chaplaincy, one that can accommodate change, I have found it useful to recover generic elements of the chaplaincy tradition to provide a set of values and priorities, so that I place myself within the disciplines of that tradition.
I have written about this in a sermon for the commissioning of a chaplain (“Chaplaincy -then and now”. http://www.flinders.edu.au/oasis/chaplains/geoff_papers/)
I believe that although chaplaincy has been a Christian tradition, these generic values and priorities may be adopted by those of other traditions who may want to adopt chaplaincy as a means of ministry. This seems to be particularly relevant in our situation, as the traditional avenues of pastoral care, through extended families and village life, assumed in Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and other societies, seem to be breaking down in the west. Chaplaincy may therefore be a useful vehicle for all traditions, a way of connecting and responding existentially to religious and spiritual needs as they present themselves.
This was, after all, how chaplaincy began. St Martin of Tours saw a beggar shivering in the cold. He responded out of compassion. What could he do? He cut his cloak in half and gave half to the beggar.
So the first element of chaplaincy is responsive.
Chaplaincy is not “doing a job”!
The encounter with the beggar had a profound effect on Martin. He had a dream that night in which he saw Jesus wrapped in the half of the cloak that he had given away. He was reminded of the Gospel message of St Matthew, Chapter 25 – “In as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me”.
The second element of chaplaincy is vocational conviction.
This means that there is congruence between the aspirations of the chaplain and the chaplain’s religious experience.
I now remind myself that a non-religious person may also be a chaplain. But whatever the source or inspiration of compassion, there is a conviction that it is the primary motivation in each encounter and there is a commitment to practice it.