A special category of problem is constituted by one of these "other social functions," the institutional chaplaincy. Here the "minister" finds an organized sub-community -- prison, parliament, hospital, factory, army, school -- where he can still have the privileged status which the parish minister previously had in the age of establishment. From the perspective of those universal human needs which have always called forth the universality of the office of religionist, these communities of special need are logical places for the survival of what was once a more widespread pattern. In modern society the chaplaincy pattern retains some of its old disadvantages:
- possible subserviency of the minister to the "patron," that is, the power centers in the institution, which authorize and sometimes support the minister;
- independence of any local congregation's authorization or supervision;
- temptation to see the "ministry" as focused on helping the individual to fit into a system which has overpowered him;
- temptation to see the "minister" as an authority figure speaking from a position of strength;
But it adds some new ones as well:
- concentration on basic individual needs (sickness, sadness) rather than the total spectrum of Kingdom righteousness
- Modern pluralism, where any doctrinaire stance is bad etiquette, tends powerfully toward welcoming all religions as equal, relativizing the truth question. Outright advocacy of any denominational conviction is practically or even formally forbidden; since, however, there is hardly any major question on which all denominations agree, the chaplain's role is limited to a listening, non-directive one.
- The concern for a therapeutic, accepting climate in the institution works against recognizing any difference between Christians and non-Christians, or between active and inactive, or faithful and disobedient Christians. This further reinforces the sense of a least-common-denominator American civil religion, with everyone willy-nilly in the "parish" by definition.
- It is impossible for this minister to bring into being, or to be supported or governed by, a congregation. THe population served turns over rapidly for reasons unrelated to the church, families are not included in the institution's concern, and the powerful people in the institution usually do not consider themselves part of the parish.
To recognize these difficulties is not to condemn outright all of this kind of service. Some of the pitfalls may be recognized and avoided. If the "chaplain" is morally and spiritually "sent" by a church rather than by the institution, if he or she can respectfully serve the unbeliever without hypocrisy and serve the weak without feeling strong, if the chaplain can be accepted in his/her "establishment" role without becoming morally dependent on the boss, there is no reason she or he should have to be unfaithful to the Gospel. But even if all the pitfalls are seen, and it is decided that the risks are worth running, this kind of service, for which numerous pastors leave their congregations, is again a refocusing of the clerical ministry, and again a reinforcement rather than a loosening of the clergy/laity polarity.
- The chaplain is tempted to feel like part of the institution's management team, all of whose other roles are determined apart from faith.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
From John Howard Yoder's The Fullness of Christ. A warning for friends who are chaplains, or will become chaplains, and most of all for myself: