Chaplaincy and pioneer ministry

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Chaplaincy and pioneer ministry

by Tammy Oliver

What is chaplaincy?

Historically, chaplains have been understood as ministers who have been authorised by the church to “show God’s love through offering care and support, and by representing Christian values and beliefs”.1 Chaplains often worked in connection to the local church, providing those who could not attend (for example, due to imprisonment, military service, hospitalisation or being away at boarding school or university) with pastoral care, religious services and the sacraments.

Following changes in the shape of society over the last century, the number of people identifying as Christian in the UK has declined, and it is no longer taken for granted that religion has a place in public spaces.2 Responding to these changes, the nature of chaplaincy has evolved. Larger chaplaincies are often multifaith, where chaplains are expected to minister to people of any faith or none. Chaplains themselves can be lay or ordained, paid or voluntary, and can be representatives from any number of religions or religious organisations, as well as interfaith and humanists. My focus here, however, is specifically around Christian chaplaincy.

These developments have led to a variety of models of chaplaincy. The lead chaplain at my university, for example, was an Anglican priest embedded in the everyday life of the university, working with staff and students alike, while volunteer chaplains at a nearby police force only visit once a week, and work exclusively with police officers and support staff. The range of chaplaincy models and contexts has blossomed. No longer restricted to the traditional hospital/prison/military settings, chaplaincies can now be found in supermarkets, shopping centres, sports clubs, nightclubs, gig venues, casinos, ports and other workplaces, among others. These new chaplaincy roles have often emerged in response to people listening and responding to God’s action in the world, and are a vital part in bridging the gap between faith and society.

Despite this wide range of models, the key feature of most chaplaincies is their incarnational approach – being present or being with people. Just as Jesus intentionally made himself present to people where they were, chaplains venture into specific sectors of society to meet and be alongside people where they are, offering pastoral and spiritual care and support to those who need it. As Ben Ryan suggests, “chaplaincy’s greatest theological tool is its ability to encounter people.”3 This “being with” approach is also deeply Trinitarian, recognising as it does that both God and humans are relational beings.

Is chaplaincy pioneering?

Pioneer ministry is innovative and entrepreneurial. As Beth Keith suggests, a pioneer “is someone who sees future possibilities and works to bring them to reality”.4 In a similar vein, Victoria Slater discusses the entrepreneurial possibilities of chaplaincy, suggesting this language captures “something of the responsive and proactive nature of chaplaincy as it works collaboratively to build something on recognized value in a particular context”.5 This entrepreneurial spirit is also evident in the experimentation with and emergence of new models of chaplaincy, which seek to connect with people and communities unlikely to attend their local church or engage with more traditional forms of chaplaincy. Slater suggests this entrepreneurial theology implies “an openness to identify and seize opportunities offered by God, however surprising or ‘secular’ they appear to be”.6

Pioneer ministry is contextual and incarnational and, much like chaplaincy, looks different depending on its context. Chaplaincy and pioneering have a shared theological emphasis on listening to context and to God in that context. Operating primarily within “secular” society, both chaplaincy and pioneer ministry engage with people where they already are and create contextual opportunities for encounter with faith. Through their very positioning beyond the usual margins of the church, chaplains operate in the same kinds of spaces as pioneers.

Pioneer ministry is deeply missional – focused on discerning and joining in with the missio Dei – and is often holistic in approach. Indeed, the broad and holistic understanding of mission found in the “five marks of mission” often resonates with pioneers. In this sense, mission is concerned with the healing of relationships: relationships with ourselves, one another, creation and God. Similarly, chaplaincy is a missional outworking of the church that takes a holistic approach: nurturing relationships, listening deeply and offering pastoral, emotional, physical and spiritual support. This mission may be framed differently in each chaplaincy context, and is able to manifest in contextually appropriate ways in the same vein as pioneering. In a school chaplaincy, for example, there is endless scope for pioneering opportunities in response to the needs and opportunities presented by the staff and students, including before-/after-school clubs, lunch clubs, seasonal occasions, reflective spaces, choirs, mental health support, creative approaches to teaching/assemblies, space for a social enterprise and much more. In other contexts, this missional element to chaplaincy might be understood purely in terms of providing pastoral care and participating in the healing of relationships.

Pioneering is flexible and there is certainly a flexibility necessary in chaplaincy that reflects a vulnerability and willingness to walk alongside people and see things from different perspectives. Both chaplains and pioneers need to be bilingual – that is, “speaking the language both of religious ministry and the context-specific language of their setting”.7 Just like pioneers, chaplains need to understand the language of church and of their specific context – workplace, school, prison, elsewhere – and its staff, students, prisoners and others. For all of these reasons, and more, chaplaincy has the potential to be very pioneering.

There are also a few distinctions between chaplaincy and pioneer ministry. A key difference is seen in how each form of ministry begins, and the expectations of these roles as they develop. Chaplains are often recruited by an institution to fill a particular role, with a set idea of what that role will entail. In contrast, a pioneer is often called to discern and respond to potential opportunities for engagement in a particular context, ideally without predetermined expectations for what will emerge. More established chaplaincy roles, especially those in more traditional contexts, are also more likely to have a particular setting with specified services to provide. In contrast, pioneers may have greater freedom to explore possibilities as they feel called, and more easily venture beyond the margins. Pioneers may also have freedom to develop appropriate structures in response to the context – for example, a missional community, a charity or social enterprise.

Another difference is in terms of power and position. Chaplains are often seen and understood as part of the institution in which they serve, and may naturally assume some valuable elements of power and privilege within the established structures. In contrast, pioneers often work from the grassroots, and often face a distinct lack of power or privilege when starting from scratch.

Another difference is in terms of missional stance. Although chaplaincy is missional in its very presence, it is likely to have less of a focus on evangelism. There are important ethical considerations regarding evangelism within ministry in all contexts; however, chaplaincy’s focus on pastoral care, its position of trust, often in contexts of particular vulnerability, commonly in multifaith environments, brings the ethics of evangelism into sharper focus for chaplains. While chaplaincy commonly holds this focus on pastoral care, pioneers often have the freedom to pursue a more evangelistically missional focus, and are often working towards creating new contextual worshipping communities.

Finally, as many chaplaincies are multifaith, the lead chaplain in such contexts will need to hold space for those of any faith and none. In contrast, while a Christian pioneer minister may choose to engage with people of any faith and none, they will rarely be expected to create space for multifaith specific support.

Chaplaincy in practice

To explore chaplaincy in practice I took the opportunity to meet with an Anglican priest and chaplain at a university hospital. She described her calling to be “right in the midst of it”, “there to hold a dying woman’s hand”, “in the thick of where people are”. This sense of vocation to “being with” people was a recurring theme in our conversation. The opportunity to be “in the midst of it”, especially where issues of life and death are ever-present, creates opportunities for chaplains to serve people’s spiritual and pastoral needs as they arise. She described how those with little predisposition for religion often approach the chaplaincy team because they have a need that they feel a chaplain might be able to meet. This suggests that chaplaincy can play a vital role in providing care and bridging the gap between church and our increasingly unchurched society.

We also discussed the practice of “noticing” – the opportunity, perhaps even the responsibility, to “notice what no-one else sees”. For example, she may ask: is this patient lonely? Fearful? Are there social/spiritual/practical issues affecting their pain levels? This information can be instrumental to a patient’s overall care, so finding opportunities to explore these concerns can significantly help patients in need.

This helped me to realise that hospital chaplains have incredible opportunities to show God’s love in a place where fear and hopelessness are readily found. The chaplain described her role as “one of the easiest places to join in with the missio Dei”. David Bosch suggests that, as an attribute of God, the missio Dei is part of the doctrine of the Trinity,8 and since humans are made in the image of this Trinitarian God, we too are relational beings, ever in need of connection with others. It is in cultivating these relationships that God’s love can be encountered. This highlights the importance of hospital chaplains’ ministry, especially in regard to supporting a patient’s relational connectivity. This focus on encounter also speaks to the incarnation, God’s self-revelation through Jesus, who encountered so many in need of holistic healing.

We also discussed the story of the woman who bled for 12 years (from Luke 8) as a Scripture that resonates with hospital chaplaincy. In this story, the woman finds connection, and is shown honour and respect. She is not poked and prodded by physicians, but able to find holistic healing – physically, socially, spiritually – through one encounter. Similarly, the hospital endeavours to show honour and respect, and aims to notice a patient’s whole being. While clinicians attend to their physical wellbeing, it is chaplains who are perhaps best positioned to listen and respond to a patient’s spiritual, emotional and social needs, and to notice where their pain may remain. After all, pain relates not only to the body, but also to one’s social and spiritual life.

Through this conversation, I observed three aspects to the gift of chaplaincy that resonated with my earlier findings. Firstly, it is clear that “being with” people is integral to the chaplain’s role, and is key to their gift – “our biggest tool is just being there”. Secondly, noticing. Just as Jesus noticed those who were otherwise ignored, some chaplains are able to bring the gift of noticing people, and their needs, which are at risk of being overlooked. In this way, chaplains are not only able to respond to these people and their needs, but also to communicate that they are loved and valued. Thirdly, chaplains are able to join in with the missio Dei in ways that seem increasingly difficult for parish church ministry.


Chaplaincy and pioneering are distinct callings and vocations. Nevertheless, there remain significant crossover and correlations between these two forms of ministry. If we were to draw a Venn diagram with a circle for chaplaincy and a circle for pioneering, we’d have to draw a large area of overlap in the middle! Certainly, Kristin Aune’s beautiful description of chaplaincy could apply equally to both the pioneering and chaplaincy endeavour: “In this light, chaplaincy has to do with life in all its fullness wherever this may be glimpsed. Chaplaincy concerns the renewal and revitalisation of life, anticipating what could be through God’s possibilities. Foretastes of the Kingdom include acts of kindness, the search for truth, the opening up of creative prospects, or the grace to endure that which will not change.”9[9]

Naturally, no two chaplains (or pioneers) will be the same; each will be more or less pioneering. While, in its grounding and approach, chaplaincy has the potential to be very pioneering – it is not pioneering by default. A chaplaincy will only ever be as pioneering as its chaplain, or chaplaincy team.

There is so much within the chaplaincy model for the wider church to celebrate, with so much that can inspire us – lay or ordained, in parish or pioneering contexts – to be a visible, credible, holistic manifestation of God’s love in society. Indeed, as Julie Hopkins argues, “the Christian faith will only be relevant if it listens to the pain, hopes and longing for salvation of those who are looking for God”.10

About the author

Tammy Oliver is an artist, pioneer and creative facilitator. She studied on the CMS pioneer leadership pathway, and is currently a curate in Southampton – where she lives with her husband Jon and two children.

More from this issue


  1. The Methodist Church, What is chaplaincy? ↩︎
  2. Ben Ryan, “Theology and models of chaplaincy” in A Christian Theology of Chaplaincy, ed. John Caperon et al (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018), 82. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 91. ↩︎
  4. David Goodhew, Andrew Roberts and Michael Volland, Fresh! An Introduction to Fresh Expressions of Church and Pioneer Ministry (London: SCM Press, 2012), 137. ↩︎
  5. Victoria Slater, Chaplaincy Ministry and the Mission of the Church (London: SCM Press, 2015), 99. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. Ryan, Theology and Models of Chaplaincy, 82. ↩︎
  8. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis, 2011), 547. ↩︎
  9. Kristin Aune, Mathew Guest and Jeremy Law, Chaplains on Campus: Understanding Chaplaincy in UK Universities, Research Centre: Trust, Peace and Social Relations, 38, ↩︎
  10. Julie Hopkins, Towards a Feminist Christology (London: SPCK, 1995), 106. ↩︎