Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ministry Within the Structures

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:

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;
  • concentration on basic individual needs (sickness, sadness) rather than the total spectrum of Kingdom righteousness
But it adds some new ones as well:
  • 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. 
  • The chaplain is tempted to feel like part of the institution's management team, all of whose other roles are determined apart from faith.
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. 


Steve Hayes said...

Interesting thoughts.

I think a lot depends on the extent to which the chaplain is "embedded" in the structures of the institution (to borrow a term from the Iraqi-American War).

I remember seeing a Dutch TV programme when at Christmas US Army chaplains were interviewed at the time of the Vietnam War. They were asked if they would be preaching on "peace on earth" at Christmas, and most said they wouldn't, because it would be bad for the morale of the boys.

On the other hand, I saw two different models of Anglican university chaplains. In one case, a largely non-residential university, the chaplain was appointed and paid by the diocese, and had an office on campuse, made available by the university. The student Anglican Society organised their own activities - a weekly lunch-time lecture and a weekly Eurcharist (at which the chaplain was celebrant). The chaplain also made contact weith the university staff.

In the other case there was a patrish church close to the largely residential campus, so studentsw took part in the life of the parish, and the clergy of the parish were designated "chaplains" by the diocese, but the university was seen as part of the parish.

Unknown said...

Hello, Travis! Mike Morrell asked me to contact you because he really appreciates your blog and thinks you'd be an excellent candidate for his Speakeasy Blogger Network. Do you like to review off-the-beaten path faith, spirituality, and culture books? Speakeasy puts interesting books in your hands at no charge to you. You only get books when you request them, and it's free to join. Sign up here, if you'd like: