The ECC’s Five-fold Test is a tool to assess and strengthen the Covenant’s progress in genuine diversity. The five dimensions outlined are population, participation, power, pace-setting, and purposeful narrative. Here we put one of these markers, power, in conversation with chaplaincy ministry – and consider how elements of chaplaincy ministry may in turn help all clergy as they seek to grow in authentic community.
Chaplains carry authority within the institutions they serve by virtue of their position, badge, dress, cultural background, etc. – with the power differential exacerbated when ministering to the sick and vulnerable. The core components of chaplaincy training – group learning, action/reflection, self-awareness – are designed to increase sensitivity to the reality of power dynamics. Core competencies required of board certified chaplains address power sharing and advocacy. Applicants must demonstrate their ability to “function pastorally in a manner that respects the physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries of others,” to “use pastoral authority appropriately,” and to “advocate for the persons in their care” (read all competencies of the Board of Certified Chaplains Inc. here).
One of the most effective ways a chaplain can share power is as one who “comes alongside.” Christ exercises his authority as one who comes alongside, walking with his grieving disciples as he opened Scripture to them on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Christ sends the Paraclete, “the one who comes alongside,” who empowers Christ’s followers. William E. Hume draws on the (initially!) silent presence of Job’s friends as an example of “sacramental silence” we would do well to imitate: “Most of us have had the experience of not knowing what to say when ministering to someone overcome with grief, and fortunately have had the good sense to say nothing. Our presence spoke for itself and was the basis for whatever words we may have said at a later time.” (Dialogue in Despair, p. 23).
Admittedly, one does not typically care from a place of total silence; there are times where talking is appropriate. But the words come out of a posture that is sensitive to the needs of the family. Eugene Peterson calls this “willed passivity,” which he connects to love. “We learn soon that love does not develop when we impose our will on the other, but only when we enter into sensitive responsiveness to the will of the other, what I am calling willed passivity” (The Contemplative Pastor, p. 108). We have experienced the power of presence in our respective ministry contexts:
- Not infrequently when I (Jeff) ask a patient or family member how I can support them, they will say, “Just in being here you already have.” I remember being called to the Emergency Department for a family whose daughter was found with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In the midst of the trauma, fear, and in the face of death, all I could do was witness with my presence, and not my words, to the presence of Christ in their midst.
- When I (Page) go out on maneuvers with my soldiers, I may speak a great deal or not much at all. But the point is that I am with and in the presence of my soldiers. When a situation does come along in their lives and they want to talk (such as in death), my simple presence has reminded them that they can come to me to speak when they are ready.
While most local church pastors are not dealing with trauma every day, they do deal with it, and the posture of their presence will go far more in extending the love of Christ than anything they could say in the midst of the chaos. The ministry of chaplaincy can model the power of a flawed, grace-filled listening and a merciful, self-aware presence offered to anyone the Lord brings into our path for the sake of the Gospel.
Jeff Pate (MDiv, Regent College) is a board certified chaplain, serving in hospital chaplaincy in New Orleans and as assistant pastor of Canal Street Church: A Mosaic Community. He has previously written devotionals for the Covenant Home Altar and is studying the intersection of chaplaincy and parish ministry. Jeff teaches healthcare professionals about burnout, sustainability, family systems, and vicarious and secondary traumatic growth.
Page Brooks (MTh, University of Stellenbosch; PhD, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) is lead pastor of Canal Street Church: A Mosaic Community, New Orleans. He is also part-time assistant professor of theology and culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches in the areas of theology and Islamic studies. An author of numerous journal articles, Page’s book Missional Mergers: A Guidebook for Churches That Don’t Want to Die is forthcoming. An army reserve chaplain, Page was deployed to Iraq in 2010.