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What is Eco-Chaplaincy?
Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Remember Father Mulcahy, the Catholic chaplain from the 6073rd division in the television show M.A.S.H.? Chaplains provide spiritual or pastoral support to individuals or groups of people gathered together for reasons other than their shared faith. For example, the patients and staff in a hospital or inmates and staff in prison individually subscribe to different spiritual practices and/or faith traditions, but have access to spiritual support by the same chaplain who seeks to ‘minister’ in a pluralistic manner. Each chaplain is simultaneously informed by the lens of her or his own practice while also being able to provide care for people within a plethora of different traditions.

There are many varieties of chaplaincy: hospital chaplains, campus chaplains, prison chaplains, military chaplains, workplace chaplains, and more. The Work of the Chaplain, (McCormack, and Paget, 2006) says that “today chaplains are found in many settings. Placement is limited only by a lack of imagination.”(2) This paper seeks to expand our imagination to include a new placement, namely eco-chaplaincy, rooted in the same skill-set shared by all chaplains while focusing specifically on the current ecological crisis as a spiritual crisis.

In order to be a professional chaplain, one generally needs to participate in an established religious or spiritual tradition and have endorsement from that community, have a theological degree from a divinity school or approved seminary, and participate in some form of on-the-job apprenticeship training. While each tradition, school or seminary, and apprenticeship varies, there are some consistent skills which all chaplains share. These next few paragraphs will summarize the skills shared by most chaplains. I am relying on both my own experiences and heavily summarizing a chapter titled “Ministry Tasks and Competencies for the Chaplain,” found within The Work of the Chaplain, ( McCormack, and Paget, 2006, 14-34), a new and useful survey text of the field. The skill-sets of chaplains can be summarized into four distinct categories:

1)     Chaplain as a Religious or Theological representative;

2)     Chaplain as Spiritual or Pastoral care provider;

3)     Chaplain as Healer; and

4)     Chaplain as Change-Agent.

The first, chaplain as a religious representative has everything to do with the outward expression of practice: rituals, rites, ceremonies and personal testimony of faith or practice. Chaplains are able to perform appropriate religious functions with or without the use of the traditional setting such as the chapel, synagogue, or temple. Chaplains are expected to be able to conduct various rites and rituals such as baptisms, funerals, and inter-religious services; as well as officiating ceremonies such as weddings and graduations. The chaplain is expected to be a religious witness to her or his individual religious or practice tradition, while also having an intellectual understanding of diverse religious beliefs and practices.

Secondly, all chaplains are expected to be able to provide pastoral or spiritual support for their clients, defined often as anyone within the institution – such as staff and patients. Pastoral support here involves accurately being able to assess one’s needs, spiritual or otherwise; offering counsel; and providing appropriate care which can mean offering a service directly, or making a referral. Chaplains are also often intercessors, meaning that they can be called upon to act as both an advocate and/or a liaison when and where necessary, offering mediation, conflict resolution, and communication skills.

The least tangible, albeit arguably the most important aspect of chaplaincy, comes in the role of chaplains as healer. This role is perhaps the hardest to train for in school and easier to learn on the job. “As a healer, the chaplain is concerned with a person’s holistic condition-physical, psychological, and spiritual. Therefore, the healing function of chaplaincy encompasses key skills that address the whole person: being present, listening, encouraging, intervening in crisis, and teaching, or providing information.” ( McCormack, and Paget, 2006, 27) By offering undivided attention and reflective listening, chaplains can open a door for great healing through the gift of presence.

As a change-agent, a chaplain engages their institution or the wider world actively. One of the common ways this role manifests in hospital chaplaincy is through directing the ethics committee for the hospital, or facilitating an ethics consultation with families, patients or staff struggling with issues of value. Other activities involved in this role manifest through teaching, leading seminars and workshops, talking at conferences, and writing books. The sky is the limit.


McCormack, Janet R. and Naomi K. Paget, The Work of the Chaplain, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2006.