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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Outreach on the outer rim

Hospital chaplains are evangelists too

When I was ordained in 1968, the high profile emphases for ministry were social justice, pastoral care and worship, with evangelism a distant last. Today outreach ministry is a greater priority. That’s especially true for behavioral health chaplains, who serve at the outer edges of outreach ministry, representing all faith groups and making contact with people overwhelmed by intense psychic pain, interpersonal chaos and social ostracism.

Why? Patients’ relationships with a faith community are often nonexistent or broken. The behavioral health chaplain (formerly psychiatric chaplains) helps groups and individuals by introducing, rekindling or encouraging their faith.

Yet these chaplains stand apart from congregation-based outreach because they give up the right to promote any particular faith tradition or denomination in exchange for the right to meet with patients of a spirituality group where attendance may be mandatory.

Some people may have a problem with the reality that chaplains deal with a wide variety of spiritual approaches or even with the term “spirituality.” At times chaplains struggle with this as well. They have the additional opportunity and responsibility to assist patients in assessing the congruence between their search for mental health and their religious and/or spiritual practices. But chaplains must leave final judgments about such matters to patients.

Some will have difficulty, too, accepting that chaplains avoid lifting up their faith traditions and denominations as the most desirable, except when leading Christian worship. Ethically a chaplain encourages patients whose faith is reawakening to first explore the congregation, denomination and faith tradition of their family of origin or of their last faith group relationship. If patients reject this avenue, cautiously a chaplain may help them seek a faith community in their area. Rarely does a behavioral health chaplain ever get to see these connections take place or know if a patient follows through with the suggestions given.

I encourage our congregational partners to pray for their sisters and brothers who serve at this outer rim of outreach.


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