I never quite know how to repond when I am asked that introductory question: “So you’re a chaplain. What do you do?”
On the one hand, I want to say “nothing!”
The gift chaplaincy to an institution is availability. The danger of being involved in programs, of ‘doing things’, is that one can easily be tied up at the precise moment when one is called upon to be the chaplain – to be available to an individual in need, to a crisis, to draw aside for prayer and reflection…
Yet contact with people, of ‘being there’ with others in their day-to-day, is also important.
So what does a chaplain do?
My first rule of thumb has been that the chaplain does not do what the university does.
The chaplain is not a counsellor because the university already has a counselling service. I don’t do welfare because we have other people in the University who do that.
The effect of this rule is that I pose no competitive challenge to other members of the university. Competition, says Henri Nouen, is the enemy of compassion.
Rather, the chaplain provides a complementary resource. The chaplain may provide spiritual or religious perspectives and a wider range of support networks to exisiting university agencies. But it doesn’t seek to provide an alternative.
Secondly, ‘not doing what the university does’ helps the chaplain not become bogged down in situations which are beyond his or her competence or authority, but remain free to be available to respond to people.
Put positively, the chaplain does what others are not able to do.
This may not always be “spiritual”.
I remember getting a visit from a mature age international postgrad student. She had been sent my way by the International Student Services Unit. She did not have transport, and could I help her pick up a TV from a second-hand shop? She needed it to help keep her daughter occupied while she studied – and it would help improve her English.
Helping this person in such a simple way has opened a wonderful friendship.
My second rule of thumb is that where an area of common concern emerges and the chaplain is invited into the conversation, as it were, the chaplain should look for partnership, offering what the chaplaincy has to give but invariably taking a subservient role.
An invitation by Counselling to be engaged in Mental Health Week, for example, may result in chaplains offering meditation sessions and using their networks to find volunteers. But the Counsellor remains the ‘artistic director’.
This attitude within partnership promotes the authority, recognition and status of the other – so it is of itself an act of chaplaincy.
But it also saves chaplaincy from getting bogged down in administrivia, particularly financial arrangements- this is not what chaplains do!