What Is a Chaplain?

Close-up of priest reading Bible book during ceremony standing near the altar in church

The position of chaplain might conjure up familiar tasks for some, but in these latter days, a chaplain’s tasks have expanded to new locations and responsibilities. To find a classic definition of a chaplain, a simple Google search will provide a plethora of descriptions. However, a chaplain serves as a cleric — a neutral religious person who is trained in religious understandings that connect with spiritual and emotional concerns. They are also trained in religious understandings that connect with spiritual concerns, usually blended with a focus on theology, depending, of course, on the type of chaplain work that is done.

In This Article:

What Does a Chaplain Do?

Chaplains in earlier times were known to be spiritual figures, prominently representing general Christian beliefs in more distant settings such as the armed services, or in medical emergency situations where you might see organizations like the Red Cross at work.

Over the years, due to the ever-increasing influx of diverse ethnic populations and the many non-Christian based faiths, the chaplain’s role has broadened to include assistance beyond that which is religious only. Spiritual care is not always seen as having religious connotations. For some time, New Age beliefs have been an influential part of society, and an understanding of those who claim to be more spiritual than religious has resonated with many people. This has come about in part due to cultural relativism and a post-modern world that does not see Christianity as the most influential belief. Thus, in some instances, a more generic type of spiritual help, almost likened to a mental health counselor, has become an important part of a chaplain’s work. Spiritual help might include conversations about life, death, purpose and possibly questions about God, but they also might be void of God entirely, aimed toward receiving emotional support alone. Religious topics may or may not be involved.

Nevertheless, a chaplain must be discerning as to the core needs of an individuals they are speaking with, noticing the unseen cues that a person is not fully disclosing. A chaplain most often is called upon to conduct religious services that align with that chaplain’s training and religious representation. They also provide other ministerial duties such as conducting weddings, funerals and pastoral counseling. Prayer support is also a part of this, but only to the point of a chaplain’s ecclesiastical endorsement. A Christian chaplain would not be required to offer Buddhist prayers, nor would a Muslim cleric be asked to conduct a ritual of Christian baptism.

For example, a chaplain may be called upon to provide support for a group who may have experienced a traumatic loss either stateside or in actual combat, offering debriefing assistance. They may be available as the go-to person, offering an attentive listening ear. The role has expanded to that of helper, emotional support, confidant, counselor, confessor and reliable friend, along with the regular religious duties they are ordained — or licensed — to perform.

Types of Chaplaincies

When one thinks of chaplain ministry, thoughts might immediately move toward an image of someone in the armed service or perhaps someone with a kind disposition and demeanor, such as the chaplain character in the late '70s and early '80s sitcom M.A.S.H. There has been a widening view of what a chaplain can do, including non-religious chaplains in professional workplaces, right along with the traditional roles that most are familiar with.

Chaplains can work full-time in a hospice or hospital setting. They can also serve in police departments, nursing homes or fire houses to help both victims, bystanders and the personnel involved with a particularly serious incident. A chaplain must have a solid, mature and trustworthy character, fully capable of serving, with an empathetic foundation, trained to connect and be fully reliable in providing spiritual solace. Integrity, vulnerability and transparency are also vital for someone in this role. People place their deepest trust in a person such as a chaplain to understand their tears, and to listen to their painful secrets and worst fears. A chaplain can bring comfort, aid in achieving peaceful resolutions, bring light into a life filled with despair, and provide encouragement, helping people to continue to look for a glimmer of hope.

Is Chaplaincy Ministry Right for You?

As with any important pursuit in life, asking yourself if this chosen field is the right for you is important. While any type of profession that supports and aids other people in their personal journeys is a worthy calling, not everyone is suited for this career.

A chaplain is not an easier version of a pastor who leads an entire congregation through the various seasons of their lives, from birth to death. Chaplaincy is more than praying for people and making them feel better. If one works with hospice patients for example, you will confront death and dying daily, along with the emotional struggles of those who are left behind. A person who aids people in these ways takes on people’s despondency, hopelessness, pain and suffering, including any staff you serve with. One cannot believe that those emotional situations are solved readily or changed easily, including any staff you serve with. When this is a type of care that is done day in and day out, week after week, month to month, a person must learn to engage in self-care practices. Different types of chaplaincy work drives a different schedule and requires a different type of mental awareness than your typical pastor encounters.

When asking yourself the question, what is a chaplain? and questioning if it’s the right path for you, you must understand the necessity for spiritual maturity, emotional stability, psychological preparedness, and from a Christian worldview perspective, knowledge about the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ necessary to take on this role.

Pursue Chaplaincy Ministry at GCU

Chaplains can be licensed by different groups, based on different criteria. A hospice chaplain may only require a bachelor’s degree in the field of study related to this discipline, while a prison chaplain may only require licensure or some other type of endorsement by a local church. Different organizations require different requirements so it is wise to look into those requirements as one enters into these fields of study. If one seeks a chaplain position in any of the United States service branches, you will be required to have a Master of Divinity degree, one that can prepare you to serve all different faiths.1 You will need to be informed on different religious traditions and ministerial protocol, with a good knowledge of basic psychology, along with various worldviews and religious traditions. A Master of Divinity degree from Grand Canyon Theological Seminary (GCTS) will give you a thorough introduction to these disciplines.

In the end, what a chaplain does, the various types of chaplaincy ministry, and the types of chaplaincies a person feels a sense of call to undertake must be clearly understood by the individual entering this unique type of soul care. A Christian chaplain has the great privilege to bring Christ into the midst of a tragedy, bringing comfort and hope in those times, even without clear declaration. The bottom line for any ministerial endeavor is to be sure of your calling. If it is clearly from the good Lord’s guiding hand, then you will be in the right place, at the right time. To learn more about enrolling at GCU and earning your degree from GCTS, fill out the form on this page.

1 LifeChoice. (2023, Oct. 5). Balancing Faith and Medicine: How to Become a Hospice Chaplain in Modern Healthcare. Retrieved March 21, 2024.

Approved by the dean of the College of Theology on March 8, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.


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