Being a Faith Chaplain in a Secular World

By Rev. Dr. Anne-Louise Critchlow

May 29, 2022

As a chaplain, I am allowed to talk about faith or pray with a client if that is what he or she wants. Like many people in our secular and even religious society, I am to be there for ‘those of all faiths or none.’

Like many of us, I work for a company that, while endorsing ‘good moral values,’ does not want to propagate Christian beliefs. So, why would this company want a chaplain to work with its staff and clientele?


As far as my employers are concerned, they want me to be concerned with the well-being of their residents (over 55s, some of whom live in independent living units, while some in residential care houses). According to my terms of employment: I can show pastoral care by engaging with residents’ problems and worries; I can give bereavement counseling and advice; I can promote community events; and I can even contribute to their understanding of their own spirituality!


However, ‘spirituality’ is a cover-all term for enjoyment of music, poetry, art, and nature. “Everyone has spirituality,” says those interested in this term, “But it may or may not involve specific beliefs or religion, and we should not try to impose our beliefs on anyone.”


As a chaplain, I am allowed to talk about faith or pray with a client if that is what he or she wants. Like many people in our secular and even religious society, I am to be there for ‘those of all faiths or none.’


Those of all faiths or none…


Have you heard this phrase before? It is very likely that you have because it is used by those who work in education, local councils, hospitals, and anyone in the caring professions. This phrase allows us to include everyone without discrimination (which is helpful), but it also appears to stop those who have a particular religious conviction from sharing it with others. It is a very common remit in the twenty-first century – a sort of catch-all label that means I should offend no one and treat all beliefs as if they are the same, thus supporting the idea that what is true for me may not be true for you. It appears to be the ultimate in tolerance, and tolerance is one of the gods of our secular age.


So, how can I work as a chaplain while being true to my faith convictions?


You might object, “Surely the apostles were very direct in the way they evangelized? Why can’t we be the same?” You can try being very outspoken if you like, but you will soon find you are dismissed from your job. It is also dishonest to agree to your terms of employment and then override them.


As for the apostles, they weren’t being paid by a secular employer, and looking closer at some stories in the Acts of the Apostles, we see that Paul engaged with different audiences and different worldviews in a variety of ways, and we would be well advised to do the same. He discussed the Good News with those in authority in the synagogue, appealing to their knowledge of their own religion, but when he spoke to the citizens of Athens in the Areopagus, he was careful to quote their own poets, as a starting point in the discussion. (Acts 17:28)

The early apostles started where their audiences were in terms of culture and understanding, and we can do the same. Listening to where people are in their understanding of life is always worthwhile. Once people feel valued by us, they may trust us to open up about what they really feel, especially about their spiritual concerns. It is a privilege to be invited into their world and their worries; however, we should proceed respectfully.


“I’d like to chat to the chaplain, as long as she doesn’t mention God,” one of our residents told the housekeeper. I spent an hour listening to the tragic events of her life and the anxieties she had endured. I asked her the odd question, seeking clarification, but, as she had requested, there was no mention of God.


The next time I met her, I listened again. Suddenly, she blurted out, “So, what do you think about believing in God when I have shared with you all of my sufferings?”


“Are you sure you want me to talk about that?” I inquired carefully.


“Yes, I do,” she replied.


After a long discussion, she asked me to pray for her. All this from a resident who had asked me not to mention God! Her life story also points out the truth of the fact that we should not lightly dismiss suffering or sound as though we have easy answers for someone’s personal difficulties. Sometimes, just being alongside them is enough for them to know that they are loved and understood.


Nor should we stereotype the sort of person who might be open to God. I had a request from a long-term alcoholic to pray for him, when all the more outwardly respectable people in the housing unit showed no interest in faith at all. The next time I saw him, he had turned his back on addiction – quite an answer to prayer!


An ex-soldier suffering from PTSD and heaving drinking was behaving terribly to staff and residents alike. The business director was surprised by his request: “I want to see the chaplain.” We prayed together over a number of months, and when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he put his faith in Jesus. I was limited by my work agreement, but he was not limited at all in what he told his fellow residents about his hope of eternal life. In his will, he asked that I take his funeral – what a privilege!


Events for residents – body, mind, and spirit


I advertise such events with complete transparency so that residents can stay away if they are so inclined. By having a laugh together and sharing on a human level, they relax, and when I tell them a story about how God has forgiven me or if I share a parable or written prayer, they don’t turn away.


My secular employer acknowledges that everyone has a spiritual part of their nature, and how true that is. I find that as people get older, they want to know more about their spirituality and experience God.


The extraordinary power of prayer


No government or company or department can legislate against prayer. I pray for all the places and people I visit, and God answers those prayers! One resident, Betty, was given two weeks to live, suddenly realized she didn’t know how she was going to meet God. She had only met me once when I had prayed for her, but now she felt the force of that prayer, and she asked to see me again. I told her the story of the lost sheep, and she asked to be found by the Good Shepherd.


Another Christian resident was made to sign an agreement with her housing provider, affirming that she would not share her faith with the other residents. She was very upset, but she prayed for her fellow residents. On my next visit to her house, I presented an Easter experience event – again with a mixture of games, a quiz, and crafts, but also the power of the Easter story. Who does not need to know about forgiveness and the hope of eternal life? All the people she had silently prayed for came to that event. She said to me later, “Anne-Louise, I thought that God’s work through me had been stopped, but he sent you to do the work instead.” We agreed that we had an unseen partnership!


The challenge of dementia


Can you communicate the love of God to someone who has lost their mind and memory? God is not hindered, nor should we feel so hindered. While in a discussion with a group of residents about Easter memories, suddenly a resident with dementia, who could hardly speak, sang “There is a green hill far away.” We sang the hymn together, and she recounted what she had heard in Sunday school as a child. (This should be an encouragement to Sunday school teachers!) “Deep calls to deep.” (Psalm 42 v. 7) God speaks to people through recalled memory. We, too, can speak the truth to the memories in the caverns of one’s mind and heart.


Restrictions are no barrier to the real work of God


I have seen this truth in all areas of work. When I worked with Street Pastors, a Christian organization, we could not share our faith openly when in partnership with the Council and the Police on the streets and in the pubs, but we were allowed to answer questions and respond to requests for prayer. Again and again, we saw people relaxing when they were under no pressure, and we were guests ‘on their turf.’ Because of their feeling of authority, they shared their problems with us openly, asked for prayer, and thanked us for what we were doing. I told more people about Jesus on the streets under those restrictions than I did in the church building.


I now wonder whether the politically correct restrictions on faith imposed in the workplace are as detrimental as I once thought. One thing is sure: God has his own way of speaking to people, whether we are ready or not. Let us not be afraid of secular employers and restrictions. No one can stand in the way of God’s work, of drawing His people to Himself.


 

Rev. Dr. Anne-Louise Critchlow has been a teacher of English Literature, a church pastoral worker, and a chaplain in France, North Africa, Manchester, and Bristol (UK). She is married with four children and thirteen grandchildren. She now works southwest of England as a chaplain.



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