22 August 2009

Chaplain or Pastor?

The question was the first of ten in the interview on Friday: What's the difference between a chaplain and a pastor?

A chaplain is a pastor with a slightly different hat.

Most pastors have a specific congregation. They come out of a specific belief system and organized group and they serve a particular group. They work with people who may be as diverse as anything on the planet, but there are some things they agree on and they're traveling the road in the same general direction with a shared history and at least some shared goals.

A chaplain may come from a specific faith tradition, and may be assigned to serve a particular congregation--like me in my role as the Catholic chaplain at the prison. The Catholics in my care differ wildly in background and faith practice, but they generally identify themselves (or Grandma) as Catholic. Granted, I don't think there are any all-male Catholic congregations pastored by a woman outside the prison, but you wouldn't find our practices too different from what you'd see in the average parish.

A chaplain in a prison is shaped and trained in a particular tradition, but is pastor to all: those with faith, those with many, those with none. A chaplain knows something about every faith group and cares about the spiritual journey of everyone who comes through the door. A chaplain is tuned into the nuances of how different faith groups name God, experience loss and grief, express repentance and renewal. A chaplain listens to the words beneath the jargon and finds common ground. A chaplain isn't threatened by a different point of view.

A good pastor is all those things, but a pastor is far more likely to be dealing with a somewhat homogeneous group of folks. The only thing all the guys in prison have in common is that they are guys. [Nope, don't even go there. Everyone at the prison was sentenced as a male, never mind what medical procedures they were pursuing.]

There were nine other questions. Three qualities of leadership? Vision, empathy/compassion, flexibility. Ever been told to do something that is against your faith principles? Not yet. Usually it's more an opportunity for education in Catholic ways and beliefs. --Though a good friend who had long been a Catholic chaplain at another prison in the area left his job when the Attorney General's office said that offenders could be whatever and however many religions they wanted to be, even if they were contradictory.

It does get a little strange at times. Every now and then we have a rash of people signing up for a kosher diet (and Jewish religion) in segregation, some of them with all sorts of Nazi symbols tattooed on their head, arms, back. Or like the man who claimed he was Muslim: Sunni, Shi'ite, and Sufi. (I was tempted to get him Islam for Dummies so he could learn something of the differences.) There was a man in that segregation unit last winter who sent more than 20 requests for different religious material, each request claiming to be a different religion, including Catholic and Rastafarian. I finally had to tell him I didn't have the resources to fill his requests and that he'd have to make up his mind as far as his requests went.

I won't know until next Friday what the outcome of the interview is. It will be a change, in some ways, to be a Department of Corrections chaplain rather than the Catholic chaplain. Truth is, I've been doing the job for quite a while. I've learned a lot in 10 years. I hope I can stay for 10 more.


St Edwards Blog said...

What perspective you have. It is really something to hear about all the different people that you, well that you pastor to.

I think that your chaplaincy can't be contained to simply Catholic or even Department of Corrections. You are a healer of souls, that is much wider.

PS - new blog There Will Be Bread. I did not stay away for long!

Sherry Peyton said...

Shannon, I hope it comes through. You do one of the most important ministries I know of, and I'm sure it is more up and down than most. Much joy and much heartache. Blessings, and my prayers are with you!