From Pastor to Chaplain

The very first day of my chaplain residency back in August 2020, one of my brand-new colleagues made the statement, “Every chaplain can be a pastor, but not every pastor can be a chaplain.” Huh? I have spent the past year contemplating that statement, as I made my personal trek from pastor to chaplain. The main difference of course is that a pastor works within the church, ministering to people of a specific faith, while chaplains minister outside the church and their ministry has no bounds. But how else are they different?

The education for a pastor and a chaplain begins the same, at least for me as an ordained Presbyterian pastor: a required Master of Divinity (or something comparable) and an ecclesiastical endorsement. In addition, a chaplain must have further training in dealing with crisis intervention and traumatic situations – AKA Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Many pastors do 1 unit of CPE in Seminary – 300 clinical hours and 100 hours of education. Check.

This is where it takes a turn. The prerequisite to becoming a board-certified chaplain is an additional 1200 clinical hours and 400 hours of education, usually done in a hospital setting. This is what I have accomplished through my chaplain residency this past year. Actually pursuing board certification will require an additional 2,000 clinical hours, a written assessment of how I personally meet each of the 35 competencies of a chaplain, and an in-person board interview. Once I am board certified I will need to log 50 continuing education hours each year to maintain certification.

As I look back at where I have been, and forward to what is ahead, I realize, it is not easy to become a chaplain. Yet here I am, more committed than ever to following my chaplain call.

If you are a follower of my blog, you know as I entered this chaplain residency program I was still clinging to my identity as a pastor and leery of becoming a chaplain. I held the unuttered belief that chaplains are people who can’t make it as a pastor. (Check out “My Call to Chaplaincy” September 14, 2020)

This became my biggest challenge to overcome as I made my way from pastor to chaplain. It was about mid-year, in my supervisor’s office, feeling like I was in boot camp, my supervisor frustrated with me continually reverting to my “Pastory” ways of unintentionally imposing my theology on my patients – and me frustrated as I struggled with letting go of my pastor title, she finally asked me the hard question: “Suzie, do you want to be a pastor or a chaplain?” My response came immediately, and from deep in my spirit. Bursting into tears I finally spoke the words out loud, “I want to be a chaplain!” This felt like freedom to me. It confirmed for me that God was doing a new work in me, and I needed to get on board.

I have always had a heart for people – especially the “unchurched” or the “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation or active faith in God. My heart for those outside the church began while serving in the church and has intensified in my chaplain work.

As I think about chaplaincy, I think about Jesus, and of course my favorite bible character, the woman at the well. Jesus shows up for this Samaritan woman and contrary to her community, he is not put off by her or her sin. He acknowledges her struggle without trying to fix her or offer her something to make her life better in the moment. The living water he offers her is of course the Holy Spirit, but in that moment it feels like freedom when Jesus gives her permission to own her “stuff.” As this simple act releases her shame, it washes over her like a cool mountain spring in the heat of the desert. Jesus exhibits some chaplain skills.

My favorite thing about chaplaincy is that I meet people every day from all walks of life. Some have a faith in God or declare a religious affiliation, but most do not. They all have one thing in common – they are in crisis and need someone to “sit in the dirt” with them. They do not need me to fix them. What they need is for me to listen, with empathy, and acknowledge their pain and suffering, to hold their hand, to affirm their value and worth, just as they are, to remind them they are not alone – all to help them to process their own stuff and find freedom and peace.

As a chaplain I minister to people no matter what they think, feel, believe, do, or don’t do, or how they live… none of those things matter. Not being limited by a building or a denomination, a doctrine or a statement of faith affords me the freedom to enter in my patient’s pain, to be present, to hold that sacred space. I am right where I am supposed to be, I have fallen in love with this inclusive ministry of presence.

So, the statement “Every chaplain can be a pastor, but not every pastor can be a chaplain.” in my quest to discover the difference, has helped me to discern my own transition from pastor to chaplain. I have learned pastors and chaplains, each called by God, hold uniquely different roles while each providing spiritual care in their context. I have been blessed to experience both.

As I wrap up my year of residency, I can say I am honored to be called “chaplain.” And I look forward to my next step as a full-time hospice chaplain in Sussex County Delaware. Stay tuned for my next blog…

7 thoughts on “From Pastor to Chaplain

    1. Yea Suzie, I love your heart for people and desire to help them where they are. I believe that has been an ability you have had for many years but you are honing that skill.


  1. So good to read about your journey and the incredible learnings! I so enjoy seeing how you are able to give of yourself with care and love towards those patients. May the Spirit of God continue to inhabit you in your special journey. Well done! Manuela Kauer


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