When the Rev. Clinton Stockton first moved to Andrews, South Carolina, to pastor Andrews Presbyterian Church, he heard something surprising from his ruling elders. They told him there may not be many ministry opportunities within his congregation of 56 communing members, so they encouraged him to find creative ways to serve the community at large, the 2,800 residents of Andrews.

Stockton soon volunteered to serve as a chaplain with the local fire department and was enthusiastically welcomed. “Within two weeks I had a full set of bunker gear and was off to the academy,” he laughs. Now he goes out 200 to 250 times a year on calls ranging from accidents to fires to heart attacks to attempted suicides. “It puts me with people who need help because their loved ones are in danger. All the EE [Evangelism Explosion] in the world won’t open doors the same way as going in and being Christ to people.”

“It puts me with people who need help because their loved ones are in danger. All the EE [Evangelism Explosion] in the world won’t open doors the same way as going in and being Christ to people.”

Stockton became increasingly invested in the fire department, so much so that he asked his elders if he should quit his job pastoring the church. But they encouraged him to stay, grateful that his fire department work had enhanced his relationship with community members and expanded the work of the church.

Elders Serving as Chaplains

This idea of creating ministry opportunities through civilian chaplain ministry is Doug Lee’s passion. Lee, a former Army Reserve chaplain, serves as MNA’s Chaplain Ministry director and oversees both civilian and ministry chaplains.

“It’s a powerful role — chaplains often touch people whom ministers don’t,” said Lee. “And the community can be reached in greater ways.”

Because chaplain ministry is frequently more a ministry of presence than preaching, ordained elders are uniquely qualified for the task, says Lee. “Teaching elders have automatic credentials to be a chaplain somewhere — you can be a blessing to your community.”

All that’s needed, he says, is a pastor’s heart. Listen, exhibit the love of Christ, counsel, pray, and know when to refer someone to 
a professional.

“You can’t be isolated in this role,” says Lee. “You need to know what resources are available and how to connect people with them.”

He also sees an opportunity for PCA elders to make a difference in chaplain roles, as many chaplain positions are traditionally filled by those in mainline denominations.

Chaplains in Action

But Lee doesn’t suggest limiting chaplain work to existing positions. Or even to traditional settings such as nursing homes, prisons, police stations, fire stations, and hospitals. In fact, he believes there’s a vast untapped market for those willing to go out and create opportunities for themselves. All it takes is assessing your community and possibly even looking within your own affinity groups.

Bobby Farmer of Columbia, South Carolina, for example, is a Vietnam veteran who likes motorcycles. Through his time riding with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association he made contacts with other men and informally ministered among them. The group eventually asked him to become its chaplain, and he now oversees chaplain ministry for 40,000 veterans and does training for all 50 state chaplains.

The big goals are that the workforce becomes more productive, the community improves incrementally, people come to Christ, and the church flourishes.

Teaching elder Allan Dayhoff sees opportunities to reach the unchurched in settings as diverse as a swing-dance hall or a local blues bar. He currently holds weekly church services in a blues bar in Arlington, Virginia, and wrote a book about it called “Church in a Blues Bar: Listening to Hear.”

“Three hundred non-Christians call me Pastor Al every week,” he says. “Getting ordained men out into the wild in this post-Christian era is the way forward.”

Interestingly, Lee says, chaplain ministry is even possible in the workplace. He cites a small Kansas railroad company that has hired a chaplain to help provide care for its 120 employees. He also mentions Tyson Foods, which decades ago began providing chaplains for its employees to help with common personnel problems that could impact work, including marital problems, addiction issues, or sick parents.

“CEOs are often open to having a pastor provide counseling, mingle with workers, or visit workers in the hospital,” said Lee. “This kind of ministry could be paid or volunteer, and even five hours a week could make a big difference.”

The big goals are that the workforce becomes more productive, the community improves incrementally, people come to Christ, and the church flourishes.

“Chaplains anywhere, but especially in small towns, can have a huge impact on the spiritual health of the community,” said Lee. “We want to see the community blessed, the kingdom expanded, and Christ proclaimed.”

To learn more about MNA’s Chaplain Ministry, visit pcamna.org/chaplain-ministries or prcc.co.

5 Responses to Civilian Chaplains

  1. David Winningham says:

    I am an ordained ruling elder who has begun chaplaincy work for a hospice in my area. The founder and president of this new hospice asked me to take this part-time position after my “retirement” from a Christian community health center “to bring the gospel to the patients AND the staff who work tirelessly to care for the dying.
    You are correct that the opportunities for loving people and bringing the hope of Christ are extensive. I’ve prayed with, loved on, and shared the love of Christ with more people in six months than I have in the 10 years. Just the title, Chaplain, gives you credibility and opens doors
    in amazing ways. I thank God every day for this opportunity and for his strength!

  2. Steve Wilson says:

    I serve with Marketplace Chaplains in Northeast PA. It is a unique opportunity to build relationships and trust with people who have no interest in the Bible or Bible-teaching churches. It takes time, but gradually I have found increasing opportunities to talk with folks about their faith and differences between Bible teaching churches and other churches. I have also had many opportunities to present the gospel in informal counseling situations.

  3. Jim Pfeiffer says:

    As a chaplain and pastoral educator in a Catholic hospital, I am pleased for this endorsement of civilian chaplaincy as a wonderful opportunity for ministry to individuals and the community. But it’s not quite accurate to say “all that’s needed is a pastor’s heart.” Just as the pastorate requires seminary education and examination for ordination before we permit a person to lead a congregation, board certification of a chaplain requires four units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at a center accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. I encourage interested readers to explore CPE at such a center. I found it to be a vital piece of my ministerial education.

    • David Winningham says:

      Jim,
      I agree that being a chaplain takes more. At four score and ten, I’m not headed to seminary but I am going for licensure via my presbytery and certification through seminary extension in counselor training. This work is, I believe, hallowed ground deserving of the best training I can obtain.

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