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.


In these settings, chaplains serve first of all those who are incarcerated, youth and adults, women and men. Chaplains provide spiritual and pastoral care and support that includes worship services, and often includes group and individual counselling as well as emergency and crisis support. Chaplains in correctional facilities often offer, or facilitate the offering, of a wide range of programs, from faith formation programs such as Alpha to emotional healing programs such as the Houses of Healing and more. Chaplains may also have contact with family members of those who are incarcerated. In addition, chaplains in youth facilities, jails, and prisons also often serve the staff and management of these institutions as well, becoming chaplains to the whole institution.

Since 1982, a web of organizations (not-for-profit and/or registered charities) has operated in various cities and regions across Canada, with chaplains providing spiritual care, counselling, and assistance with practical needs (e.g., housing, medical services) to people released from incarceration in youth facilities, jails, and/or prisons, and to their families as they seek to build new lives in the community. These organizations are traditionally known as Community Chaplaincies.

Since 2014, the Correctional Service of Canada has funded what are called Faith Community Reintegration Projects, whose principal objective is to help former prisoners by developing and resourcing a network of faith communities that will support and assist people who have been incarcerated in their efforts to successfully reintegrate into the community.

Chaplains in public hospitals and healthcare facilities provide spiritual and pastoral care and support first to patients and their family members, and also to staff and management. In many hospitals, chaplains are officially included as members of the patient care team and participate in care planning and management with other professionals. Hospital chaplains offer group liturgy and worship services and one-to-one spiritual and pastoral care, based on the specific situation and needs and wishes of individual patients or their family members as appropriate.

“Chaplains are responsible for fostering the religious and pastoral care of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and their families, regardless of religious affiliation.

A Chaplain has privileged access to all CAF members of all ranks, has no commanding authority, and is prohibited from bearing arms under the Geneva Conventions. Their responsibilities include:

  • Officiating at special functions, religious services and ceremonies
  • Advising the Commanding Officer regarding religious accommodations issues, ethical dilemmas, as well as spiritual and morale issues of the unit
  • Liaising with civilian religious faith groups
  • Referring members to other care providers such as social workers, psychologists, or medical personnel
  • Providing directed care after significant life incidents
  • Providing notifications to a member’s next-of-kin when directed
  • Apply knowledge in general military administration and chaplain branch policies

A Chaplain can work in all military environments with members of the Navy, Army and the Air Force. Chaplains provide a ministry of presence and offer spiritual teaching programs. Ceremonies typically require the chaplain to offer prayers, and church services in public and unit parades. Liaison with other spiritual leaders in the civilian community is expected. Chaplains can work in Canada or may be required to go abroad during operations.” (Source: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/caf-jobs/career-options/fields-work/other-specialty-occupations/chaplain.html)

Chaplains in public universities offer spiritual care primarily to students, but they provide support to faculty and staff as well. In addition to offering or creating opportunities for liturgy and worship, chaplains may offer counselling to individuals, including emergency and crisis support, and they often organize group activities that seek to respond to public issues, e.g., prayer vigils, fundraising events (e.g., 30-Hour Fast, Out of the Cold walks, etc.).

University chaplains are also often involved in one or more of the governing bodies of the university and participate in the formal events of the university calendar, e.g., convocation ceremonies.

As society has come to better understand the trauma regularly suffered by first responders to crises and emergencies, chaplaincy to police officers, firefighters, paramedics, search-and-rescue teams has expanded as well. It is more and more commonplace to find chaplains walking alongside first responders, providing spiritual and pastoral care, support, and counsel both during and, especially after, emergency and crisis situations.

The work of chaplains to first responders can involve services for victims and their families at the scene of an emergency (e.g., offering prayers or Last Rites), but it especially involves debriefing with first responders following emergency or crisis calls, as well as one-to-one counselling with individuals.

Chaplains in senior care facilities and nursing homes provide spiritual and pastoral care first to residents. This care often takes the form of regular one-on-one conversation with individuals and often includes involvement with family members, especially in relation to the serious illness, failing health, or death of residents. Chaplains offer liturgy and worship services and may also facilitate group programs. Chaplains may also offer care to members of staff and management.

Chaplains to sports teams or sports organizations provide spiritual and pastoral care and support to individual players and to the teams and organizations of which they are members. Chaplains are often called upon to support players in times of individual, professional, and family crisis (e.g., injury, being traded, etc. Chaplains may offer Bible studies and hold services where players, coaches, and others gather, e.g., in the arena or rink. A number of sports organizations and teams at different levels of sport, professional and amateur, have chaplains supporting them. These include, for example, the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League, the Calgary Stampeders, and the Toronto Argonauts.

Workplace chaplains provide individual spiritual care and counselling to individuals in the workplace. Chaplains may be hired by a single company or may provide support to workers from a number of different companies, as is the case with Toronto’s King-Bay Chaplaincy. Since 1977, the chaplaincy has supported workers in various companies located in downtown Toronto.

In addition to providing one-to-one spiritual care, workplace chaplains may also offer liturgy and worship services, as well as special programs.