Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Friday, 31 August 2012

Different Strands of Theological DNA in Chaplaincy

Kate Bradford

Chaplaincy is a ministry that has its raison d'etre in personal encounters. To this end, there is a strong focus on the practical nature of this ministry, thus, a particular focus on operational or practical theology. But to assume in any way, that an operational theology is somehow neutral simply arising out of particular situations; or uninhibited by the weight of formal theology, or does not precipitate from a structural theology, is a mistake. Operational theology, as any theology, is neither neutral or value free. Operational theology either aligns with some theological positions or reacts to others.

Operational theological practices and world views function as visible and invisible theologies. These views arise out of a particular theological context influences by attitudes to Scripture, history and tradition. Operational theology does not exist is a simple form, it is precipitated from both theology and psycho-sociological attitudes. Orthopraxis is underpinned by orthotheologia and orthocardia: actions and attitudes are underpinned by a set of beliefs and emotional commitment to those beliefs.

Chaplaincy training focuses on informing a participants’ operational theology. Any trainee undergoing chaplaincy training has a reasonable right to understand the implications of the theological presuppositions underlying the practical training. This is necessary because there is a troubling assumption that chaplains can undergo a chaplaincy training course involving a high level of: personal disclosure; vulnerability; examination and then modification of pastoral practice through the verbatim method; but not be theologically changed. The training has the express purpose of altering a participant’s operational theology; however operational theology has levers that move a participant’s structural theology. In fact I would argue that often the unstated intent of chaplaincy training is to change the trainee’s structural theology.

Theological assumptions are freighted in within the operational theology; each operation theology represents theological proposition, containing strands of theological DNA. As the participant submits to the program their theology is cracked open. Just as patients are vulnerable and suggestible, chaplaincy trainee participants are also vulnerable and exposed, and the process has unsheathed their theological DNA. During this time of exposure, new strands of theological DNA can be spliced in modifying the theological positions held. This is not necessarily a bad thing as this is one way a Christian grows and changes. But, there is a need for this process to be consciously acknowledged both by trainer and course participant, and the need of separating out the explorations of theological challenges in a less vulnerable environment.

Because of the theological nature of chaplaincy course content, and the potential vulnerability of trainees two opposite problems arise: a trainee may become sensitive to the fact that their theology is being challenged and emotionally pull back from the course and learn very little, or the contrary, complete submersion in the course results in later discovery that they have a number of new unexamined theological beliefs that they did not have before the course, along with new competing loyalties but no avenues to discuss or resolve the discrepancies.

For evangelical chaplaincy trainees, whose identity is in Christ, and seeking to sensitively share the love and hope of Christ through thought, word and deed, a particular training environment is needed. Chaplaincy is a highly specific Christian ministry that requires a theologically safe environment for trainees to participate. Chaplaincy training is vastly different to a doing a Clinical Supervision course or Mental Health First Aid course. Chaplaincy is not a tequnique – chaplaincy is a Christian ministry. I wish to suggest the following safeguards for training in this Christian ministry: 1) Chaplaincy trainers have high levels of training and practice in both theology and chaplaincy; 2) the trainer’s personal theological perspective is clearly articulated and open to examination; 3) the theological positional of authors of course material is acknowledged; 4) opportunities to discuss the theology of an idea, or course of action, in addition to the more subjective theological reflections; 5) the trainer is able to direct trainees to theological resources that help guide the trainees through, formation of new practical theologies, and structural theological changes. In many situations the changes may actually involve loosening unhelpful adhesions between theology and practice, distinguishing between the content of the gospel and gospel practice, respecting boundaries, acknowledging limits and accepting finitude; rather than actually altering structural beliefs.

Such training guidelines would provide a higher degree of transparency, and greater safety for the participant as they enter the immersion process of being a chaplaincy trainee, the end point should precipitate in greater transparency, safety, comfort and hope for the suffer the chaplain seeks to help. Chaplaincy remains a ministry that has its raison d'etre in personal encounters.


  1. 1 Definitions of "operational theology" and "structural" theology may be helpful.
    2 How valid is it for there to be a variance between the two in a trained evangelical chaplain? Should not the former be an outworking of the latter?
    3 It seems that the nexus between theology and training environment would be especially crucial for trainee pastoral carers who have had no formal theological training.

    1. This is a very late response to your thoughtful comments Lindsay, below are a few thoughts related to you remarks.

      Operational theology was a term I first heard when participating in CPE courses and it described a person practical theology, or what they ‘actually did’. These actions may be in line with or at variance to their articulated theology. I use the word ‘structural’ to describe formal theology. Such structural theology provides the structure behind the way people think about things formally, and this is usually someone’s articulated theology. Such structural theology may include systematic theology, biblical theology or salvation history: it cover views on such topics as salvation, sin, hope, redemption, mission and the church.

      Ideally, there should not be a gap between what is believed and practiced, however, we do not always do things we should and we do the things we should not – this is part of our human problem. The integration that comes with Christian maturity should help narrow the gap. As you say the former should be an outworking of the latter, however, in much chaplaincy literature and training the latter (structural) is an outworking of the former (operational) following a paradigm expounded in more liberal schools of theology.

      In any chaplaincy environment a trainee should be able to ask of a text or model: how does Christian hope fit with this? What is the author’s view of sin? What is prayer? Is this type of prayer connected to Jesus? What does Jesus’ humanity mean: example, exchange or sacrifice? What is the significance of eternal matterss?