Understanding Chaplaincy as a Gift

Nigel Roberts

Written by Nigel Roberts
on 28th September 2022

Around twenty years ago, working as a director for a local Youth for Christ centre, I was given the chance to become a chaplain. At that time chaplains tended to be ordained and were most often found in the faith school and public school sector. I had no one to ask about the role and no training I could get to grips with. There were no books, no networks and no courses like those now running with CYM.

The discussion in this blog would have been invaluable. If you are thinking of chaplaincy then this gives you a chance to reflect not on models and theories but on whether God might be calling you and why, and in discovering the why you will eventually work out how.

Now, twenty years on I lead chaplaincy training and still work as a chaplain for a small school. I may have more experience but I still want to learn. I hope that this blog might just provoke you into taking a journey into an amazing ministry, that of the chaplain.

In Ephesians chapter 4, the apostle Paul sets out some thoughts on the nature of calling - ‘ live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called’ (v1). He goes on to describe what a worthy life looks like, what characteristics accompany a vocation – patience, meekness, humility, love – before explaining, in the context of vocation, that your calling is viewed as a gift.

It is often the case in Paul’s other letters that when he speaks of gifts he speaks in terms of skills or ability – the gift of healing, the gift of teaching, the gift of prophecy etc. But in this letter Paul talks in terms of the gift of the prophet, the evangelist, the teacher ( v 12). The gifts are the people who are living the life to which they have been called.[1]

I am sure that the list in verses 11 and 12 is not definitive. It is open ended. These gifts, and others, are given to build the church. Vocation is church building by its very nature.

If this is true of evangelists and prophets, teachers, and preachers, then I believe it is also true for chaplains, in whatever context they find themselves called to. This brief reflection offers some thoughts on the implications of this and is therefore meant to encourage and challenge how we think of what we do in our role.

Chosen

The word translated ‘called’ in Ephesians 4 v 1 can also be translated as ‘chosen’ and is so in some of the more recent bible translations. If we are thinking of chaplaincy as a gift, then this is very apt.

I am a person who thinks long and hard before committing to buy a gift for someone and the reason for this is the relationship that exists between the receiver and the giver. I give to the people I love. My wife, my children, my grandchildren are precious to me, and I want them to have something that they will appreciate that is a token of that love which I feel.

This is so true of God. John 3 v 16 affirms this view – God loved, so he gave…his Son.

So, when, as chaplains, we find ourselves in a new setting, we can walk into that place whether a school, hospital or prison knowing, firstly, that God loves the place to which we have been sent, and all those who are part of its community and that he has chosen us as a gift for those he loves because He believes that we are what they need. That is a thought that is encouraging, assuring and possibly daunting.

We choose gifts for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we know that the person we love has a real need at this time. I remember, once, being in dire need of a new car and a friend we knew, saw the situation, and saw what we needed and bought us a car. It was given because it was needed. So, as chaplains we might be exactly what the school or college or hospital needs at this time. Our skills, character and attitude is the perfect fit and could resolve some of the difficulties faced by the institution.

Sometimes, we give gifts, not in response to need but just to bless. Over my 38 years in ministry people have often just given us a gift of money or a holiday or a hamper, not because we needed it but just as an act of extravagant blessing and kindness.

So as chaplains sometimes, God gives us to an institution not because they desperately need us at this time but because we will be a blessing to them. Just our presence, our character our heart to serve will make the place better.

Unconditional

Gifts are unconditional. If they are not, then they are bribes and not gifts at all. When a gift is given it is given with no expectation of return. It is given in hope of appreciation, of being used, loved and not rejected, though the possibility of rejection is always there.

This is a challenging reflection. If a chaplain is an unconditional gift, then they can’t dictate an agenda, they can’t say what they will and won’t do. In my own experience this was a point of frustration. I was offered to a school and the school welcomed me in and proceeded to outline what they saw as my role in terms of engaging with the local community, offering pastoral care to staff etc. When I asked about doing collective worship and RE lessons, the school were blunt in their response. I had to either accept the situation or withdraw my offer. I stayed, for 17 years, and did what was given me and in doing those things, brought Christ into places I might never have reached.

Always the gift

I don't consider that the unconditional nature of the gift of chaplaincy compromises my witness or mission in any way. A gift is always a gift and is a constant reminder of the one who has given it.

For my 40th wedding anniversary I bought my wife a ruby ring. It's a lovely thing and when ever people admire it my wife introduces is at the ring my husband gave me. That is what it is and always will be. It is always the gift.

For a previous anniversary my in laws decided to buy my wife and I a work of art, a street scene of a village in Wales made from metal. It is a wonderful thing. People come to our house and are captivated by it. The gift is always the work that my in laws gave us and more importantly, every time we look at it, or talk about it, it reminds us of the giver. Its presence is testimony to the care, kindness and generosity of my wife’s family.

Whatever a chaplain does they will always be the gift God gave the institution out of love and anyone interacting with the chaplain will be reminded, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, of the one who gave. This is, in some ways, the heart of the ministry of presence.

Rejection

The town in which I live is dominated by a high street lined with charity shops. All the shops are well stocked with good quality items, many of which are new or nearly new. I myself, have given to such shops a whole host of unwanted gifts over the years – books I’d already read, gadgets I would never use, clothes that didn't fit. I was always grateful that someone had cared enough to give me something but that was not sufficient reason to keep it if it wasn’t right. I know that the giver would have been terribly hurt if they had known that something they had spent time choosing was put away without once being made use of.

Being a gift given by God does not protect us from rejection. It did not protect Jesus, whose passion is the ultimate example of a gift rejected. Rejection doesn't mean we have been sent to the wrong place. The sense of powerlessness in this regard is part of being a chaplain.[2] The receipt or rejection of the gift is always the right of the one to whom it is given. If that right is exercised, we move on, adjust and trust to the next time.

Remembered

I can still remember many of the gifts I was given over the years. Not necessarily the biggest or the most expensive, but the ones that touched me. A fountain pen from my father who knew I wanted to be a writer. A clay superman made by my grandchildren who knew that Superman was my ultimate hero. Gifts are remembered.

In the school where I served, we had a donor’s board. A big board in the hall with the names of all those who had given, financially, to the school over the years. Their names are in gold for all to see and read. They have not been forgotten.

The chaplain who is a gift is written on the hearts of those they have served and will be remembered there for many years. Even though I have been left my role for a number of years, I am still being waved at and spoken to in the streets by children and adults who knew me in school. It is my hope that in remembering me they remember the one who sent me, gave me and in remembering are thankful.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians emphasises again and again that the purpose of the gifts are to ‘ equip the saints, build up the body, help others strive for unity and maturity and to become more like Jesus’

A theology of chaplaincy needs to start from this idea of the gift.[3] It establishes the basis for all that can be done – all the accompanying, the presence, the prophecy, the teaching, the care and the prayer, the liturgy and the service.[4] All of this flows from this one idea. All models find their roots in this idea and all vocation starts from this understanding.

In CYM we recognise this. We acknowledge that our theology must form our actualisation of vocation. That is why on our degree course and short courses we don't start with models and theory we start with theology and as we discuss and discern those theologies and their implications ideas of models that would be appropriate to our context are formed. Our courses therefore, have to be flexible and adaptable. They need to mould to the learners understanding and working context. They recognise that one size does not fit all. Over the past few years over 200 people have been through our chaplaincy in education training and they are now working in secondary, primary, public schools, 6th form colleges, FE colleges, Multi academy trusts and alternative education. Each of them have developed their work, from their training and through the lens of their theology.

Chaplaincy is a high calling that requires much of us, but we can live that life to which we have been called in confidence that we have been chosen and sent in love.



[1] Guiness,O, The Call (2003) Nashville, Nelson,42

[2] Nash, P and Roberts,N (2019) Chaplaincy with Children and Young People, Cambridge, Grove ,p5

[3] Roberts, N (2020) Growing Fruitful Disciples, Cambridge, Grove

[4] Tregale, D (2011) Fresh Expressions of School Chaplaincy, Cambridge, Grove

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