Chaplains and pastoral counselors touch the soul in some of the world's hardest places.
They are not the doctors, the pilots or the warriors, but they stand alongside them ready to offer prayers and be visible reminders of Christ in times of peace and turmoil.
In The United Methodist Church, 1,640 licensed local pastors and ordained deacons and elders serve as endorsed chaplains. All can be appointed to serve in more than 16 types of civilian settings, such as medical care facilities, prisons and workplaces. Only elders make up the 25 per cent of chaplains who serve in every branch of the military.
"Historically speaking and from a Methodist perspective, clergy serving in extension ministry are often recognized as true heirs of John Wesley. After all, Wesley spent only two years in a parish ministry setting; the remainder of his life was spent in ministry beyond the local church," says the Rev. Tom Carter, endorsing agent and director of endorsement for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
"Similarly, clergy serving in extension ministry are responding to a vision that beckons them to be in ministry beyond the location of a building into being a church that shares sacred space with humanity in its need," Carter says.
While a chaplain at the federal prison in Honolulu, the Rev. Heidi Schulz Kugler said she saw every day how God breaks through the hardest of hearts.
"When people enter prison, their former lives are stripped away, and they are separated from family and friends," she said in a brochure posted on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry website. "Many feel as though they have hit rock bottom. However, when imprisoned people come face to face with the love of the Lord, their future becomes brighter and hope flourishes. Time and time again, God breaks through the hardest of hearts and hardest of criminals."
Kugler is now assistant chaplaincy administrator at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington.
Chaplains provide spiritual care and accommodate religious needs in places outside church buildings.
Being there every day through grief and happiness gives chaplains a unique opportunity to offer God's love.
"We are all children of God, regardless of our age, and we are more alike than we are different," says the Rev. James M. Weisz, a retired member of the Western Pennsylvania Conference who served retirement communities as a chaplain.
United Methodist chaplains and pastoral counselors have been on the ground during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and on site when the unthinkable happens like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
The Rev. Gregory Clapper had recently been commissioned an Air National Guard chaplain when events on one of the most tragic days in the history of the United States called him to serve.
On a hot July day in 1989, as he was driving his family to a mall in Sioux City, Iowa, to see the movie "Peter Pan," he noticed a large plane flying low, heading for a local airport.
A few moments later, a thick, black line of smoke rose from the direction of the airport. Clapper got back in his car, turned on the radio and heard the first reports that United Airlines Flight 232 had crashed.
Clapper was a "baby" chaplain — he had not attended chaplain school yet — but he knew where God wanted him to be.
He was on the tragic scene moments after it happened. He walked among the bodies, comforted the injured and tried to help survivors come to terms with what had just happened.
Today, Clapper is professor of philosophy and religion at the United Methodist-related University of Indianapolis and the author of When the World Breaks Your Heart: Spiritual Ways of Living with Tragedy (The Upper Room).
Called outside the walls
The United Methodist Endorsing Agency, part of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, oversees the process established by the church to ensure clergy who are called to serve as chaplains and pastoral counselors possess the skills and capabilities and are appropriate representatives of the denomination to serve in specialized ministries.
The endorsing agency was established to address the need for spiritual care to military service personnel during World War II.
Government agencies expanded the employment of endorsed clergy to other specialized populations after the war. With the professionalization of spiritual care came the development of standards, ethics and certification within the profession.
United Methodist Church-endorsed clergy members must:
- Complete appropriate specialized training and demonstrate expertise for professional ministry within their vocational interest;
- Receive ecclesiastical and personal reference checks;
- Submit a written summary of formation and pastoral experience to the United Methodist Endorsing Agency;
- Be interviewed by a committee of three clergy peers, one of whom represents the specialized vocational field; and
- Establish or obtain credentials with a professional agency, such as the Association of Professional Chaplains, Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, American Association of Pastoral Counselors and others.
Learn more about the endorsing process at www.gbhem.org/clergy/chaplains.
Endorsed chaplains are appointed by their bishop and must maintain their connection to the church by:
- Attending their annual conference;
- Submitting an annual report describing their ministry; and
- Being faithful to their ordination vows and maintain their covenant with the church.
- Going into specialized settings
Those who believe God is calling them to serve in a specialized ministry as a chaplain and wish to be endorsed must meet certain requirements before applying:
- Be an ordained or provisional deacon or elder or local pastor.
- Have graduated from an accredited college and seminary or completed the Course of Study for local pastors.
- Meet any additional requirements required by the setting.
Among the traits the endorsing agency looks for when considering candidates are the understanding and flexibility to work in an environment with challenges related to religious pluralism and diversity, the ability to make decisions in "the gray zone" and isolation.
Contact the United Methodist Endorsing Agency for an application by sending an email to email@example.com.
Always room for ministry
Chaplains and pastoral counselors repeatedly say they love their jobs and are awed by what they get to do for a living. The Rev. Jen Bowden has a good example.
As a United Methodist Navy Command Chaplain, she was attending a Red Sox game in Boston, celebrating and saying farewell to a shipmate when a bomb exploded during the Boston Marathon in 2013.
The next day, she was mobilized along with two crisis intervention and stress management peers to debrief personnel and dependents affected by the bombing.
In the days that followed, she along with other chaplains, medical and work-life personnel (Coast Guard Family Support) responded to individual and group requests for counseling and support.
"While I pray it never happens again," she says, "I am thankful to know that there is room for effective ministry and care in the face of tragedy and pain and appreciate the opportunity to serve in this manner."
Kathy L. Gilbert is a multi-media reporter for United Methodist News Service at United Methodist Communications.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, September–October, 2014.