When asked the difference in being a pastor and a chaplain I simply say, “My main focus as a local church pastor was on the worship community; my main focus within the chaplaincy is on the mission field.” Both calls are required to further the kingdom.

The primary mission of chaplains is to facilitate the free exercise of religion in a secular environment. By definition a chaplain is a minister, such as a priest, pastor or rabbi, sent out by a religious body to minister in an organization or institution. In this context, they are beacons of hope for believers and non-believers, the churched and the unchurched, the saved and the lost.

From War Zones to Workplaces

Chaplains can be found in war zones comforting troops who are unsure if they will live through the day to see their families again. They minister to families and medical staffs in hospital emergency rooms where a life hangs in the balance. Chaplains regularly deliver death notifications to loved ones who immediately need the comfort of someone who cares. They work with first responders in the police, fire or rescue departments to help them process the tragedies they experience.

In times of crisis, chaplains become visible reminders of God.

Over 100 National Association of Evangelicals Chaplains Commission chaplains are ministering in 33 states and eight countries around the globe. While 90 percent of our chaplains serve in the Armed Forces, the NAE also endorses Veterans Administration (VA), health care and industrial chaplains.

The ministries of NAE chaplains expand far beyond the walls of a church building and touch people who may not have a personal faith. Their position offers the ability to minister in unlikely, unorthodox and unexpected situations, making them unique force multipliers for the gospel.

Faithful in a Pluralistic Environment

Chaplains can be teachers of what ministry in a pluralistic society looks like. The military provides clear guidelines for ministry in a secular environment. Army Regulation 165-1 states:

In the pluralistic religious setting of the military, the Chaplain Corps performs or provides religious support for all Soldiers, Family members, and authorized Department of Defense (DOD) Civilians from all religious traditions. Chaplains cooperate with each other, without compromising their religious tradition or ecclesiastical endorsement requirements, to ensure the most comprehensive religious support opportunities possible within the unique military environment.

In the U.S. military, soldiers, their family members, and authorized DOD civilians are entitled to religious support. Chaplains advise the command on all matters pertaining to the free exercise of religion and assist the commander in providing for the accommodation of religious practices.

Chaplains hold fast to their particular traditions and refer to others when accommodations of other faiths are required. Christian chaplains wear crosses on their uniforms, and they try to serve in a way that is faithful to the gospel the cross represents. Theirs is not a pluralistic ministry, but ministry in a pluralistic environment — much as being in this world but not of this world.

(Chaplains are the only military members to be managed in any way by a non-governmental institution. Bound by military regulations and tradition, chaplains can only serve the military with an endorsement from an officially recognized endorsing agent, such as the NAE Chaplains Commission or a denomination.)

A Personal Ministry

Because counseling with a chaplain is considered privileged communication, people feel safe and seek their help. When I sit down with someone for their first counseling session, I clarify that though I am not there to convert them, my counseling will come from a biblical perspective. I let them know if that is not acceptable to them, I can refer them to another counselor.

Never, in my 28 years of chaplain service, has someone asked to be referred. The truth is, when they walked through those doors, they knew who they were coming to see. I have had the privilege of seeing more people come to Christ each year as a military chaplain than I did as a local pastor.

When I served as a civilian pastor, most people outside of my church had no idea who I was or where I worked. On the other hand, chaplains are recognized almost universally as caregivers. If a chaplain walks into a shop, section or office, they are readily welcomed and expected to talk with the workers. Often leaders in the workplace give workers paid time to meet for counseling with the chaplain.

The opportunities for chaplaincy ministry are unlimited. Chaplains accept this special charge often knowing that it will require separation from their families, being placed in harm’s way, and sharing the pain of the suffering under their care.

Chaplains answer the call of the Great Commission to go forth and minister to the ends of the earth. Call them missionaries for they are commissioned from of our local churches and denominations to reach people for Christ.

This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.

Steve West
Chaplain Steve West, executive director of the NAE Chaplains Commission, served as an active duty chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. He served in the Air Force and Army for 41 years, retiring from his distinguished career as senior chaplain for Joint Base Langley/Eustis. He is a graduate of University of Mobile, New Orleans Theological Seminary, Alabama Theological Seminary and the Department of Defense Joint Staff College.