Seminary Program

This is where we post the essays from many of our Universal Life Church Seminary students. When students finish a ULC course, they write a comprehensive essay about their experiences with the course, what they learned, didn't learn, were inspired by, etc. Here are their essays.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Chaplaincy Studies

By Rev. Daniel Scott Irwin

During these twenty weeks in taking this chaplain course, several aspects encountered in being a chaplain have been covered. It would be easy if all one had to do was decide to be a chaplain and just drop into the position. As well meaning as that might be, we find that there is a great deal to learn in reference to performing the duties as chaplain correctly in a manner that proves beneficial in serving both one's community and God.

The following are comments and observations on areas covered in this course:

The chaplain holds a unique position in that the 'chaplain' must be truly universal in dealing with (and provide religious services and guidance for) people of all faith systems without being judgmental of the validity of different religion(s) or various factions/denominations within religion(s).

There is a uniqueness in being a minister...and, in particular, being a chaplain. For those truly engrossed in the service of the Creator, there has been a 'calling', a destiny, a pre-ordainment to serve. Often this is not recognized by the individual for some time, yet, at some point in life, they are made aware of the inevitability of their being chosen by God to do His will.

The chaplain is indeed the 'sheppard' as the chaplain is often called upon in times of crisis. A unique ability to listen and understand must be developed over a lifetime of learning and observation. In many cases, the chaplain just by being there/present gives comfort and reassurance to the troubled.

My first encounter with anyone known as a 'chaplain' was in the military. The military chaplain provides services and consultation for members of all faiths in the military community. Flexibility is the key in operating in such a realm. One must be flexible to meet the needs of people of many different faiths and belief systems. It is imperative that the military chaplain have a certain amount of knowledge in regard to denominations and religions other than his own in order to best serve those in need.

The chaplain in a health care setting is nothing new. Since ancient times, we have had a side-by-side relationship between medicine and ministry. Examples of this can be shamans, druids, Israeli priest practicing medicine, our modern-day 'healers' and hospital, hospice, and nursing home chaplains. For the most part, these chaplains receive special training. Though similar, the hospital, hospice, and nursing home setting have their own unique requirements. The chaplain is there for consultation, hope, grief support, not only for the patients, but for staff, as well. These settings are not to be taken as an opportunity to 'evangelize' but to give hope and comfort to all persons there.

In serving as a chaplain working with police departments, fire departments, and/or prisons, it is necessary for the chaplain to know the boundaries between where the civil authorities are doing their duties and where the chaplain is needed. Within all three areas, the chaplain will be required to render spiritual counseling and comfort to all involved no matter the faith system/religious beliefs of those concerned. Thorough indoctrination and study dealing with suicide prevention is a must.

As more and more of our time is spent at work, at school, and other places, it makes sense that chaplains are becoming a part of the scene. Being present at these locals renders the chaplains readily available for counseling, spiritual guidance and prayer in general.

It is imperative that one, as a chaplain, never forget the key areas of trust, confidentiality, and compassion in dealing with others. Trust is usually earned through time and effort, but only if one is proven trustworthy. Confidentiality is a must. The betrayal of confidentiality will surely lead to a loss of trust. Those in the group with which the chaplain works need to see and feel that the chaplain has a sense of compassion for the association to be effective.

A most important aspect, or attribute, of the chaplain (or any minister) is the ability to listen. A sense of confidence and trust must be established between the speaker and the listener, which, in this case, the listener is the chaplain. The chaplain must be attentive, be an active listener, and be able to give proper feedback. It is advised that the chaplain be slow to speak (giving himself or herself to contemplation over what he has been told) and that, when speaking, the chaplain have knowledge about which he speaks.

Touching (as in the physical touch) is a form of socializing which can bring a sense of closeness and caring. The chaplain must be aware of when, and in what manner, touching is considered appropriate, as well as, safe. Some people have a 'healing' touch. In times of distress/stress, a simple touch can be a comfort to those in need.

Grief, as the lesson on same states, is the human emotional response to loss. There are many types of losses and the chaplain's calling in such a case is to help those suffering loss through the grieving process. The chaplain must first confront his own stance, beliefs in encountering grief as his/her attitude towards grief will be reflected in the counseling of the bereaved. One needs to acknowledge the pain in grief but show that the situation is not without hope for the future.

Counseling the troubled is an important aspect of interaction as a chaplain. The counseling session should be held in what the counselor and counselee would consider a safe and comfortable place. Counseling sessions are held in series when at all possible. Initially, the counselor should get to know the counselee and from there move on to addressing the problem and working toward resolution. During these sessions, the counselor should be able to determine if outside help is needed. Motivation, often through prayer, is of key importance.

In performing duties as chaplain, one must maintain a sense of self-awareness of one's limitations, as well as, be alert for negative influences one can encounter, negative influences such as, manipulation by others, contra transference, improper sexual attraction, the desire for money, pride, etc. In areas in which the chaplain is on the proverbial 'unfamiliar ground', it should not be out of the question to refer those ministered to who are having problems to other sources of aid. The chaplain should not only care for others but take care of themselves as well. Compassion fatigue can result from trying to do too much. We are human and have physical limits. When I was working as a medic at a prison, a wise doctor once told me, "Dan, you can't save them all. Just do what you can." Words of truth.

In the many faceted nature of the duties as chaplain, we find that he/she may, and will, be called upon to take part in institutional functions and ceremonies associated with the group/population being served, not only with the opening and closing prayers (and frequently a devotional reading) but in celebration and observance of holidays of all faiths. Within these ceremonies and observances, we find dedications, marriages, memorials, and funerals, as well as, national and local holidays (such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day). All this making it very clear that the chaplain needs to have a very thorough understanding of those for which he/she serves as chaplain.

Worship is the bringing together of God and people. The chaplain, here, is an enabler in bringing about a conducive atmosphere for worship. Considerations must be taken in creating a sacred space for worship, as well as, acquiring sacred objects and symbols and performing rituals pertinent to the faith group to which one is ministering. The created 'sacred space' need not be elaborate, often just the way the chaplain is dressed and the few objects/symbols present are all that is needed.

For/to many people, we see the chaplain as the 'soul friend': the confidant, the counselor, the confessor, the spiritual guide. As the very nature of serving as chaplain lends itself to fleeting/limited contacts, the interaction between the chaplain and others may be brief. That being the case, the chaplain must ensure that they set an example of a righteous believer to better represent themselves as a potential 'soul mate' in leading prayer, giving counsel and comfort, and whatever else is entailed in their position.

One's sense of accountability can very well be based upon one's sense of reliability. As a chaplain, one has the responsibility to be reliable, to be honest and dependable in all matters. This is important in many aspects of accountability: in personal relationships and with one's personal congregation, in professional efforts as mentor and soul friend, in interaction with one's endorsing authority, as well as with the parent institution and other professional institutions. Honest, forthright, and dependable dealings are required in all these matters/interactions as chaplain...and most of all, in reverence and obedience to the boss: God.

I have read somewhere that we are our worse task masters. It is very easy to become overwhelmed when devoted to one's work. As a chaplain/minister one can lose themselves in their efforts to minister to others leading to 'burn out'. One must be concerned with physical health (enough sleep, exercise, proper diet) , allow for personal devotional time, and maintain a flexible schedule. After all, how can you help others if you neglect yourself?

The Boy Scout motto of "Be prepared" does really fit for the chaplain. Often what he/she may need as a chaplain will only be available when brought along. There are 'professional items': business card(s), data book, calendar, notepad, change/ready cash, handkerchief or tissues, watch, ID, Bible (or other relevant religious book), etc. On a personal basis, one needs to bring a smile, maintain good eye contact, listen well, and dress appropriately. A brief case or any other carry case, etc. could be brought along to carry extra items: laptop, hygiene and administrative needs, religious items too bulky to be carried on the person. And, of course, bring yourself with a positive attitude.

Even with all the information already provided in this course, one must remember that there is always room for growth, there are always new things to learn, sometimes old things to learn new. These twenty weeks of lessons have basically focused on you, as chaplain, realizing what your duties and responsibilities are. And, one important responsibility is to learn about the system/institution within which your duties as chaplain are to be performed. I have seen, first hand, the importance of this in my years working within the corrections/prison system of my state. An area, I would like to serve in as a chaplain. One must be aware of how things work/function. I have seen chaplains and lay volunteers come and go, leaving due to their frustration in dealing with a system that they had not taken the time to understand.

I believe this course to be a very good initial guide for chaplain duties. Something new for those new to such service and a refresher/reference for those who have acted as chaplain or who have done similar work. And, I repeat myself in saying again, one must observe, learn from observations, and learn from outside sources. One's established chaplaincy is based upon what you, as the chaplain, bring to it.

What I expected, and received, from this course is a deeper reflection on duties and responsibilities as a chaplain. As a minister, universal in nature and somewhat 'at large' not having or being attached to a 'physical' church, I feel that, in some sense, my day to day dealings with others in relation to every day life, as well as, in strictly 'religious' aspects, is akin to being a chaplain for everyone, as should we all in serving as ministers for God.


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