A workaday definition of a Chaplain is something like this: A Chaplain is an individual who offers spiritual and pastoral care to individuals or groups, in a specific setting other than a congregation or parish.

A truer definition of a chaplain might be this: A Chaplain is an individual who seeks to be a “midwife to the Holy,” working with people to seek the presence of God in what may often feel like an “alien environment,” outside of the familiar ground of parish or congregation.

Chaplains serve in hospitals and prisons, in hospices, universities, the military, and nursing homes and more. Almost by definition, chaplains serve in contexts in which transition and uncertainty and change are the basic landscape and daily reality—contexts that are often stress-filled stressful, traumatic, and often straddle—or cross—the line between life and death. Chaplains preside at worship and are often involved in happy occasions—officiating at a wedding or baptisms. As often as not, however, chaplains walk with people as they struggle with fear, dislocation, and tragedy, and with the questions and doubts and losses, including loss of connection with God, that can result.

Chaplains can be found in jails and prisons, and chaplains can be found in the community supporting former prisoners seeking to rebuild their lives. Chaplains serve in universities, nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, and in the armed services. Chaplains support police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first-responders. Chaplains may sometimes also be found in locker rooms, board rooms, and airports, supporting the members of sports teams, or workers and executives, or travellers.

In A Theology for Chaplaincy, the Reverend Rowan Clare Williams, a university chaplain and formerly a hospital chaplain, suggests that for Christian chaplains  

… the key issue in chaplaincy is the exploration of identity. … Today’s fragmented society has a need for chaplains who bring the Christian story into the places where our identity as individuals and citizens is formed. Ministry in any secular institution (hospitals, universities, prisons, shopping centres, schools …) means learning to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land where that story, so central to us, is unfamiliar to those we serve.

The English word “chaplain” comes from the Latin word Capellanus (cloak) and from a tradition about the fourth-century Christian bishop, Martin of Tours. Seeing a beggar on the road, Martin of Tours cut his own cloak in half and gave one part to the beggar. From his example of practical service, the term capellini came to be applied to people who do the same, that is, who offer practical service along with spiritual care to people in specific contexts. Chaplaincy thus “reflects the essence of all  Christian ministry, lay or ordained: to meet people where they are, to see in them the face of Christ, and to respond with compassion to their needs.”

Many Christian chaplains are ordained; others are laypeople. Requirements in terms of ordination, education, training, experience, etc., may be established by the organizations seeking chaplains, by the governing authorities of different Christian denominations, and often, by government policy or directives, as in the case of chaplains in public sector organizations such as prisons, hospitals, and universities. Although the origin of the term “chaplain” is Christian, people of different faiths who provide religious or spiritual care are also often called “chaplains.”


Christian chaplains sometimes work in situations in which they provide spiritual and pastoral care specifically and only to people who are members of their denomination or to members of other Christian denominations. That situation is, however, becoming more and more uncommon.

Christians who wish to serve as chaplains today must be aware that, in many settings, in particular in public institutions such as prisons, universities, the military, hospitals, etc., the chaplain is called upon to offer spiritual care not only to people of the same or other Christian denominations but to people of other faiths and to people who have no faith as well.

This does not mean that Christian chaplains would be called upon to conduct non-Christian religious services or even services outside of their own traditions or denominational licenses or authorization. It may mean that a Christian chaplain, particularly in a crisis situation, would be called upon to provide pastoral support and spiritual care to someone who is not a Christian until such time as a chaplain from the individual’s faith community can take over. It does mean that Christian chaplains often work alongside chaplains from other faiths, and that they are often called upon to secure or facilitate appropriate spiritual and pastoral care for people of other faiths.

If a Christian chaplain is in charge of chaplaincy care in a particular context, he or she may be called the “Manager of Spiritual Care” or the “Director of Spiritual Services” (or some other similar title). Part of his or her role would quite specifically be to facilitate the provision of appropriate spiritual care to those seeking it, according to the demands of their particular faith tradition.


Part-time or full-time permanent paid chaplaincy positions do exist in a number of settings, including, for example, the Canadian Armed Forces, federal penitentiaries, and many public hospitals. In other situations, however, whether because of low budgets, budget cuts, or other reasons, organizations are looking for chaplains who are willing and able to volunteer their time without remuneration (though travel expenses are usually covered). This is often the situation, for example, in chaplaincy to local or regional first responders’ organizations. Many fire services and/or paramedic services, for example, appreciate the assistance of chaplains but are not able to provide them with a salary.