What does it mean to be a chaplain?

Often, when I tell elders that I’m a chaplain, the first thing they want to know is “who are you with?”

They mean church. It’s a natural question, especially for the senior generation, who grew up with clear categories of religious denominations (Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, etc.).

Without making a short story long: I fall into the classic baby boomer stance of not identifying with any particular denomination. I grew up Catholic, I’ve regularly attended Presbyterian churches, I’ve been involved in numerous parachurch groups, and I’ve led non-denominational services for years. Most of the time, I simply identify myself as a follower of Jesus.

But that kind of language doesn’t really help seniors. So my standard answer is: “I’m a licensed nondenominational chaplain, and I attend a local congregation.” That’s always enough to set them at ease.

At the same time, I realize that most people don’t really know what a chaplain is. I myself got a lot of clarity on this when I attended the excellent chaplain training and licensing program through the International Fellowship of Chaplains in May 2017.

Workplace. Pastors serve in a particular church, congregation, and (typically) denomination. They serve within the church and its community. Chaplains, by definition, serve in the workplace, for a group or entity that is not inherently spiritual, such as military groups, police forces, fire stations, hospitals, schools, prisons, and of course senior care communities. In other words, when performing chaplain functions, I do not represent any particular church.

Secular and spiritual. Pastors are tasked with building up and inspiring their particular body of believers in faith to be the hands and feet of God in the world. Chaplains are trained in the “hands and feet” part. Again by definition, a chaplain is both religious and secular, spiritual and nondenominational, because we are called to meet anyone’s needs—not just people who share our own faith background. As noted in the IFOC manual, “The Chaplain must be able to function in his or her capacity without consideration of [that is, bias about] the person’s spiritual background or understanding.”

Practical. As required by their denomination, pastors usually earn advanced theological degrees that they apply to teaching and other functions. Chaplain training is primarily in practical service: for example, good listening skills, how to follow instructions when meeting immediate needs in an emergency or natural-disaster situation, how to deliver a death notification, what to say and not say in a crisis moment of trauma, grief, or loss.

Purpose. Christian pastors and chaplains have one key thing in common: We seek to glorify the Lord Jesus. Chaplains from other faiths can and do serve people in love, and that’s wonderful.

In my particular sphere of influence as a chaplain in eldercare settings, I do provide a lot of directly spiritual care—for example, I pray with people and lead Bible studies and nondenominational church services. If elders tell me they’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, nonreligious, or whatever, I say, “if you’d like to come anyway, feel free – no conversion required!” (And I do have regular attendees from other faiths, which I love.)

But I’m also there simply to meet needs: a blanket when someone is cold, conversation when someone is lonely, holding hands when someone needs a gentle touch.

Do you have questions about this? I’d love to try to answer them; send me a message or post a comment below.

Peace be with you,


Photo by Jake Thacker

6 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a chaplain?

  1. Kate Ellison says:

    I was wondering if meditation is a practice which is available to people who are in various stages of memory loss. And is that something you yourself practice? I have a friend whose short term memory is very challenged, but she still practices meditation, and I wonder if that is a significant factor in her tranquility and calmness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • elisa bosley says:

      That’s such an interesting question, Kate. I remember seeing some recent research on this very topic; here’s the link: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170121190807.htm. The myriad benefits of meditation (and music listening) seem clear. It would be wonderful to see more of this in eldercare settings; I currently don’t know of anyone offering it, though my sample size is limited. I’ll definitely give some thought on how to incorporate it — thanks for the good idea! I practice a form of meditation called Lectio Divina, a meditation on (not study of) a short scripture, which I find very helpful and centering (Melanie recently gave me an excellent book on this called The Bible as Prayer).


  2. Brad Veitch says:

    Well written, Elisa. Graciously drawing distinctions while highlighting the unique services of pastors and chaplains. A new follower, I am finding your work a blessing and increasingly a vital part of my “on the job training.” Thanks and keep up the good work, please.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Chad Federwitz says:

    Wonderful thoughts. I would add, that many people who are chaplain, also have advanced higher education in Chaplaincy or Theology, not all of course, but many, and not always in any given Spiritual Tradition, some of course some do.
    I may also add that perhaps contrary to the IFOC manual, “…function in his or her capacity without consideration of the person’s spiritual background or understanding.” may be better stated as “with consideration” One may not be able to “meet them where they are spiritually” but I feel that not taking one’s spiritual background or understanding into consideration doesn’t feel very “chaplainy” to me. Would love to talk to you more on this.


    • elisa bosley says:

      Chad, you are absolutely right! That is much better language (and as an editor, I’m annoyed I didn’t notice it myself 🙂 ), though I’m pretty sure the IFOC writers mean it in terms of not using one’s own spiritual beliefs as a litmus test for serving someone. I’ll make sure to pass on that feedback to IFOC. Would always love to talk to you more!


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