We Need Full-Time, Neighborhood Chaplains: How Might We Support That?

ann arbor

Yesterday, I spent some quality time with my local college town. I meandered through our downtown district, noticing what was happening in and around our shops and restaurants. Then, I wandered through our local campus. Most students have left for the summer, so it feels emptier. At the same time, with a less busy atmosphere, more can be noticed and appreciated in specific ways.

I did not intentionally eavesdrop, but while walking, I naturally overheard some conversations. One person articulated to a colleague her grand strategy to achieve the ideal schedule. She went through all the safeguards she will eventually put into place so that she is no longer juggling everything to an absurd degree (her words) and will finally have time with her family.

That is an expression of the challenges my neighbors often face in this university town with its demanding culture and the internal pressures of the impostor’s syndrome.

But as I walked along, I encountered other kinds of struggles as well. At one point, I sat with a friend of mine. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her, but she was back in a space she frequents from time to time. She and her husband come here to panhandle on both sides of the street. They struggle to have shelter, but today, they have a different concern. Her husband’s mother has died, and they need to get to Toledo to be with the rest of the family. I listened and said a prayer with her.

In the midst of all these moments, I pondered the gifts and needs that people carry here. Then suddenly, I had a thought which filled me with a sense of recognition and rootedness.

“I want to be a chaplain for this town,” I thought.

The idea resonates with recognition because it taps into my sense of calling.
The idea resonates with rootedness because I love this place.

In many ways, that’s already who I get to be functionally. It’s a great gift to live like a chaplain in the midst of two towns — Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. Though I’m not making a living this way, I hardly feel more alive than these moments when I get to be in the neighborhoods, visiting with people, learning from them, and speaking spiritual meaning alongside them.

This thought stayed with me when a friend sent a text a few hours later. She’s a seminary student taking a class to explore the practice of ministry in a post-congregational context. She mentioned that this class will be important, as she and her fellow students will need to engage ministry and community development differently than pastors who have come before them.

That’s good language for the transition we’re in, I found myself thinking later. We are moving into a post-congregational culture, and in some ways, we are already there.

I don’t think this the end of Christianity, and
I don’t think this is the end of spiritual community.
They aren’t ending, 
but they are definitely changing.

Local congregations are not suddenly irrelevant without any meaning or mission to offer their neighborhoods. But at the same time, neighbors aren’t connecting with congregations in the same ways they did decades ago. There are disconnections and cultural changes taking place both within and beyond local churches, and they are creating the shifts we are watching. At the same time, some congregations have practiced exclusion and poor ethics, and that has sent some leaving quite deliberately, perhaps without a new home to practice their spiritual life.

In a similar way, congregational pastors are not suddenly irrelevant without any meaning or mission to offer their neighborhoods either. Many of them want to be present with people beyond the walls of their own congregations. In fact, they long to have time for it. But as their congregations are declining, there are simply more pastoral and administrative needs on the inside. How can congregational pastors have the time to connect broadly with people beyond their own church contexts? It is definitely a challenge.

For all of these reasons, I wonder. . .

What if we could call people to serve as chaplains for particular towns and neighborhoods, organizing spiritual life and community connections in uncharted ways?

What if we actually did that?

What would be needed, and what obstacles would have to be cleared, in order to create such roles?

What if some of our seminarians could serve in this way upon graduation?

I’m a realist, knowing it would take a lot of financial support and creativity to form these kinds of roles, but the shifts we are seeing in spiritual demographics are already necessitating them.

So what are your ideas?

How could this actually be done?

Renee Roederer

15 thoughts on “We Need Full-Time, Neighborhood Chaplains: How Might We Support That?

      1. I work with women and girls in communities of trauma to empower them in telling a new story beyond the narrative of sexual and inter-generational trauma. I am currently a chaplain at a behavioral and mental health facility. I am also a veteran with ptsd and understand the sociopolitical and economics disparities that often influence our story telling. I don’t believe the stories of traumatize women and girls are given much attention until after the fact, however, i do believe that the opportunity to claim, reclaim and proclaim ones divine truth is most powerfully felt and enacted in communities and if only get our MDiv to serve in assigned places of worship or communities of like minds, we will miss the transformative opportunities to hear the story of the suffering and the sufferers, and in some ways, become transformed ourselves, while our presence in sacred space of community life becomes a balm of healing. So much can be gleaned when we walk, talk and live into the lives of others and become a presence of gods unconditional love in the present moment of the life of gods beloved. Its a beautiful dance, that should be learned.

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  1. I have thought of this often, however, i must admit, I get discouraged by the implementation of this work. it requires resources, both human and financial, that often seems to be allocated other places, institutions. I am on the verge of created a organization with this idea in mind, like a co-hort of women, with a diverse set of passions and skills to and am constantly grappling with the how. Often times community advocacy org. only focus on the soci-political, which is absolutely necessary, but through my own research, I haven’t come across NGO or INGO that have integrated the spiritual focus as a part of program development and economic and political advocacy. I believe everything god provide for us speaks to the “whole” which for me a connection religiously, and/or spiritually, is vital.

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  2. I’m on that path now. It started with the Chilliwack Alliance Church asking me to be the neighborhood coordinator, our church has a history of involvement in the neighborhood, particularly with the local public elementary school. Our home is in the neighborhood. Next, I joined the Leadership in the New Parish cohort at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Now I’m in seminary, pursuing a Masters in Christian Studies with an emphasis in Chaplaincy. Our church hired me part time for this good work. It’s a slow process, but so exciting. It’s amazing and I love it!

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  3. Perhaps local congregation would be willing to pool financial support for something that would benefit the life of the community.

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    1. Yes! I think that would be wonderful.

      And you never know how folks from various churches might become connected to each other through that support also. There is another interesting outcome of moving toward a post-congregational culture: Christians might become more connected geographically and less competitive to “get” or “gain” people as members for their own congregations. I think that would be a beautiful thing.

      That goal and anxiety to “get” and “gain” is still pretty strong these days though, and perhaps it will continue to grow as congregations struggle with the changes that are happening. People really want their congregations to survive. That’s an understandable anxiety that deserves compassion. When it takes on a life of its own, however, it can lead to the dynamics that are currently driving people away.

      In the midst of all of this, if congregations were to support a neighborhood chaplain, it would be important for them to celebrate the forms of ministry happening in the neighborhood without viewing the chaplain as a means to “get” and “gain” people through their own doors for Sunday worship.

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  4. I’m sorry, but I so disagree. The role of “chaplain” to the city is through God’s instrument, the Body of Christ. This suggestion is one more step in the disempowerment of the believer. To PAY people to “be Jesus” to the city continues the travesty of “Professional Christians do the work of ‘Part-time Christians.'”

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  5. I have recently begun working in a Christian pregnancy and family center, after having earned an M. Div. and not feeling called to congregational ministry. I love the front-line mission aspect of sharing my faith with women who are seeking meaning and wholeness. I am in the process of seeking funding for beginning a worshipping community at this centre for clients and their families that will share the basics of the faith in dialogical and respectful ways, all the while I am learning from them how they interpret the world and the Word.
    So while I agree with Rick Cruse, there is also a need for professional chaplains who have more time and energy to respond to the calling of Jesus follower. T the same time, I am in communication with my local church about how to involve the congregation in serving the women at this centre.
    It’s an exciting time! And I am happy to hear that there are others who think along these lines.

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    1. In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I am a trauma chaplain in a level one trauma center. The needs of patients and families facing what is often the worst days of their lives require very specialized training, yet the hospital is filled with employees at every level who provide spiritual care. However, I don’t believe such specialized training is required to “be Jesus ” to a community. Churches need to train people up to recognize that they are God’s sent ones, people on a mission. I would far prefer hundreds of people from a variety of churches providing care for their city. To add yet another financial challenge to an already oversubscribed congregation doesn’t make sense. It also de-incentivizes believers when professionals do the work.

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  6. Please contact me. I will send you a complementary copy of “The Net- An Organizational Vision for the Church of Tomorrow.” I believe your article and questions address the vision the Jesus had for the universal church on earth. He pointed toward this type of organization when feeding the 5,000 and 4,000. It is time to make the necessary changes.

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  7. This crystallized some thoughts I’ve had while preparing for my sermon this weekend. I’m calling my church to a more intentional approach to neighborhood interaction. The idea of sending out community chaplains is intriguing to me!

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  8. The head chaplain for the Fresno Police Department is working on just such a plan. His goal is that each church will have a neighborhood chaplain who could check in on people who have had contact with the police for some reason.

    Currently many of the elementary schools in town have a chaplain with the goal for each of district’s 90 schools to have a chaplain. I have been doing this for two years now.

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  9. Interesting that we connect money with professionalism. The Jewish model is that you pay the rabbi what he or she could make in the world if they were not leading a congregation.

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