Learning there are Latter-day Saint chaplains working throughout the world may come as a surprise to members of the Church. After all, ‘chaplaincy’ is not a ward or stake calling, but a vocation. Especially in the United Kingdom, the idea of a ‘chaplains’ usually conveys an image of clergymen in collars working in schools, hospitals, prisons, and the military. But in recent years, chaplaincy has become more inclusive and diverse, and no longer fits the traditional stereotype.
My own chaplaincy practice takes place in prisons in northwest England. In fact, I visit several prisons in the area, including high-security establishments for serious offenders. In terms of diversity of faith and belief, every chaplaincy team within which I work reflects the diversity of the prisoner population. Some of my closest colleagues are of Muslim, Pagan, Catholic, Anglican, and Free-Church traditions. And, despite our faith and belief differences, most of the work we perform together is the same.
What do chaplains do?
So, what does chaplain do? There are many answers to this question. A good friend of mine, healthcare Chaplain Gerald Jones from California, USA, often says the chaplain does nothing. At first, this seems bizarre. How can a working professional do nothing? Well, as Gerald puts it, the chaplain simply goes to be with another human in their hour of need – not with a pre-planned agenda, but simply to be with them. The chaplain goes to listen, to comfort, to support, and to respond. Instead of going to do any one thing, they go with nothing but the individual in mind. They go to let them know they are never alone.
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of a scripture: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men [and women] of low estate.” (Romans 12:15-16).
Surely this is the work of the chaplain. In this instance, I believe con-descend means to “descend together”, to forget one’s own self, to embrace another’s reality, to weep together, and to rejoice together.
Which church are you from?
I have had many wonderful experiences as a chaplain. One that I shall always remember happened when I was working voluntarily in a community hospital in Somerset. During the team meeting that day, I was asked to visit an elderly gentleman who shared a room with another patient. He was happy to see me. We shared some time together. At the patient’s own choosing, the encounter was brief.
But as I turned to leave, the other gentleman in the room asked me, “Which church are you from?” With a smile, I explained that I minister to all faiths and none, and my own faith tradition is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Immediately, the gentleman’s face lit up, and he exclaimed: “You’re a Mormon! I used to be a Mormon!”
Between that encounter and my next shift at the hospital, I thought deeply about that experience. The chances of encountering a former member of the Church in a rural Somerset hospital was slim, to say the least. Was it providential? I asked myself, “Would I ever see this gentleman again? After all, it is important that a chaplain does not go with the intent to seek people out and evangelise. Perhaps that short encounter would be our last?”
When I next arrived, however, I noticed that the inquisitive gentleman had been moved to the main hospital ward and had requested a chaplaincy visit from me. I walked the corridors with a smile, and as I approached his hospital bed, he beamed at me and started to talk. I pulled up a chair and listened. This man had been a member of the Church for many years, but sometime after he and his wife moved, they began attending their local Church of England. When his wife later fell ill and passed away, his Anglican congregation had been incredibly caring and supportive. He told me how much their kindness and love meant to him.
Then he asked me whether I knew anyone from his old Latter-day Saint ward. As it happened, he had attended the same ward as my parents and grandparents, and we both knew many of the same members. He remembered my father as a boy, and the man who had given me my patriarchal blessing was the same man who had been his bishop.
He fell silent. His eyes welled up with tears. A feeling of pure love seemed to connect us. Without speaking further, we wept together. I felt overwhelmed with compassion for this good gentleman. And I felt a distinct impression that, on that wintry afternoon, he needed to reconnect spiritually with his former faith. I just so happened to be with him in his very moment of need.
Who guides a chaplain’s feet?
I have reflected on that experience many times since, and it continues to teach me to this day. As a chaplain, I don’t walk hospital corridors, or prison wings, to seek out converts to our faith. I go to listen and support every individual where they are and assist them in their own personal journey to be the best person they can be. I have since had many encounters when I’ve realised more clearly that God directs my path, and that He allows me to assist Him in caring for His children.
It is striking to me that Jesus, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, selected these words in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19, see also Isaiah 61:2-3).
As chaplains go about their work, they are participating in Jesus’ ministry to those who are sick, imprisoned, isolated, bereft, or otherwise afflicted. And they do so without malice or prejudice; but collaboratively, with a desire to extend the pure love of Christ to all.
The author works as a chaplain in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service in northwest England. He has also worked as a chaplain in healthcare and is in the final stages of completing his doctorate in theology at Pembroke College, Oxford.
Military chaplains provide religious support to members of the military and safeguard their religious rights while functioning in a diverse religious environment.
Civilian chaplains serve in hospitals, hospices, assisted-living centres, emergency services, prisons, universities, and rehabilitation centres.
Some chaplains serve as volunteers. Others are in full-time or part-time paid positions. Salaries are paid by the hiring entity. The Church does not provide compensation to chaplains for their services.