Free Speech and Religion

Chaplaincy Is Ministry That Meets People Where They Are

November 22, 2021  • Grace Tien

In a world that is marked by increasingly deep divides, covenantal pluralism is an emerging framework that, at its core, seeks to respect and value the essence of others’ identity without sacrificing the substance of one’s own. The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab (CIL) at Brandeis University is partnering with the Templeton Religion Trust on a project to examine how chaplains facilitate covenantal pluralism.

At CIL, we believe that this vision of covenantal pluralism is urgently needed today in the US and globally. In the past decade, our country and world have witnessed burgeoning political and ideological divides across the political spectrum, the exposure of race, gender, and class-based inequities, as well as a quickly growing, demographically diverse population that represents a wide range of religious, cultural, and ethnic groups.

The work of chaplaincy is a natural home for the framework of covenantal pluralism, as learning to operate and serve in a pluralistic and diverse context is central to the work of chaplains. As spiritual caretakers, the call to serve and minister to a wide range of people includes those outside of their own faith traditions. In this way, chaplaincy is distinct from the congregational (or traditional) model of ministry.

While the traditional congregation depends on members of a mostly homogeneous, regionalized religious body or organization, the chaplaincy model is integrated into other established organizations and secular institutions. In short, traditional ministry can be described as a “come to me” model, while chaplaincy “comes to you,” be it in hospitals, the workplace, the military, prisons, universities, airports, public transportation, and beyond. By virtue of its function, chaplaincy requires engagement across differences.

Learning to operate and serve in a pluralistic and diverse context is central to the work of chaplains.

The vision of covenantal pluralism is exemplified through the historical example of Roger Williams who founded Rhode Island on the principles of robust pluralism, freedom of conscience, and cross-cultural respect. Unlike some of his Puritan contemporaries, Williams did not seek to impose his own Christian faith and tradition on Native Americans, paid them for the land on which he lived, and sought to learn their language in order to build relationships and community with them.

Not unlike Roger Williams, the chaplains that our lab has surveyed and studied over the years seek to exemplify these principles of compassion, cross-cultural respect, robust pluralism, and freedom of conscience. Over numerous studies, we have found that chaplains across religious traditions often serve in contexts that require a relational commitment to those whom they minister. Chaplains must maintain a delicate balance between caring for people in a way they can understand and respect their differences in background.

CIL’s scholarly research, webinars, e-books, and network of chaplains across religious traditions are all offered to chaplains for no cost, and the lab has built a community that seeks to support one another through challenging periods, like this pandemic. In sharing this vision of enacting covenantal pluralism, our lab also seeks to bring together a diverse group of leaders in the chaplaincy world to build partnerships across organizations and institutions.

As religious affiliations and local congregations are on the decline in the US and the country becomes increasingly diverse, we believe that the work of chaplaincy is ever more urgent and goes hand in hand with the vision of covenantal pluralism. It is our hope that the findings of this project and future CIL projects will enable chaplains to better minister to the needs of everyone in a way that calls forth compassion, mutual respect, and deepened understanding.

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