The British Monty Python comedy troupe once mocked the “chartered accountancy” profession, which I took as roughly comparable to the in-house-slash-CPA accountant line of work in the U.S. It’s not that I want to mock the chaplaincy profession, exactly. I just want to question it.
Hospitals have chaplains. Prisons have chaplains. And the military has chaplains.
I suppose it stands to reason that the student government and each academic class on a Christian college campus would have a chaplain. A student from 3-4 few years ago comes to mind — she had been elected, as she was fond of saying, to serve simultaneously as “chaplain of everything” (three different, somewhat overlapping music student organizations).
In my limited experience, chaplains have been decent, basically good men & women. My parents have a good friend who served for more than 30 years as an Air Force chaplain. He’s a good guy. I knew a guy who was involved in a church plant at the same time that he was a hospital chaplain in a sizable city. He was a good guy, too. Especially in the case of students, I assume that those elected have exhibited some spiritually minded trait that at least marginally impressed a marginal number of peers. Or, peradventure, there were simply more posters and fliers with that person’s name. (Catch the drift of my faith in the election process?) I’m not sure what the chaplain of the sophomore class really does, but presumably that person at least gets asked to lead a couple of public prayers every year, and maybe s/he organizes dorm devotionals like a military company’s calisthenics.
Once someone is a officially a chaplain, officialness may take over. Gone are the days of spontaneous insight and Christian living and more or less apt devotings–replaced by the need to organize and serve in official capacities. Now, it’s office and liturgy over meaning and content.
That happens to a lot of us. Once we get ensconced and entrenched, we lose something of the substance. I worry about this regularly in my work–periphery can so easily eclipse central tenets and essence. But the more official, public, and visible the person, the worse this syndrome.
Worse, though, than creeping supercession of clergy function over authentic, meaningful Christian influence and leadership is the watering down and amalgamation of everything that goes under the name of religion into the chaplain’s office. At some point, soon after being nominated or elected to the chaplaincy, one is forced to pluralize, accepting and supporting everything from Wicca to Mormonism, including those who think it’s cool to be newly Muslim, hippy-California-Buddhists, and an odd Zoroastrian adherent or three. In the case of a Christian college chaplain, the spectrum will of course be more narrow, but it still may span Seventh-Day Adventism, Calvinism, Romanism, televangelism, Lutheranism, Pentecostalism, anabaptism, Methodism, and community churches. Whatever. No matter the mainstreamness or out-in-left-field-ness, it is necessary for a chaplain to be inclusive. This is his job.
Soon, the chartered chaplain either passes out from exhaustion or retreats into officialdom, having lost his reason for being (elected or hired).
There once was a Chaplain named Jones.
Wasn’t Jewish or Hindu or Muslimmy.
Let’s rub Buddha’s tummy
Then temper the Jewish rummy.
Now Jones has retreated to talk on the phones.
Forgive me. That wasn’t exactly standard limerick form, I know, but it was fun nonetheless.