I currently serve as chaplain to a mainstream organization. This is new ground for those of my religious trend: Heathenry, also known as the Old Norse / German religion. It falls under the umbrella of Paganism. I’ve been writing down some of my thoughts about it. I do not see myself as a trend setter, but as someone stepping into a role that our people have not had the opportunity to fill previously.
This experiment in chaplaincy came quite by accident. I filled in for the chaplain once at a wake. My invocation was so good that I ended up with the job. That was over six years ago. Three years ago, I was asked to take an additional position as chaplain at the county level.
I have always had something of a feel for interfaith work. I have also run the gamut of religious experiences. One might say I have been “…from Alchemy to Zen and back again…” The idea was not to look for a new path. I just wanted to see how it felt to experience a little of the many traditions I had come across. Spirituality has always fascinated me. There must have been something guiding my path, because I managed to get the tools, knowledge and experiences needed to move forward.
Chaplaincy is different. In my experience, a chaplain is not so much a spiritual leader as a generic spiritual presence. He leads prayers at meetings and events, does invocations at wakes and funerals, and if needed, brings a little comfort to members and their families. The chaplain is not a substitute for an individual’s own clergyman.
I have experience as a substance abuse counselor. I used to give talks on spirituality to addicts and alcoholics. They were a tough audience. Talking one on one, I had to be able to put things in the perspective of the individual. That mean knowing just enough of the formalities, lexicon and nuance of monotheistic religions to translate spiritual ideas into a language that they could understand. That is a lot easier for a Heathen for one very specific reason.
I am part of a religious sect that does not proselytize. We do not actively seek converts. Personally, I am not interested in attracting people to Heathenism. If they want to come, fine. I will help if they ask. Working with troubled people gave it another perspective. We’re not trying to lead them to Allfather. We are just trying to lead them out of the quagmire and onto solid ground. From there, the journey is their own. That may entail using the lexicon of their respective religions to get them from Point A to Point B. Once they get there, my job is done. The journey to point C is their responsibility. Their choice of spiritual path is really none of my business. I have succeeded if I get them to the point where they are able to make that choice on their own.
Without having to proselytize, we can bypass religious preferences and get right to the goal. The chaplain’s job is a service to all members in whatever group, organization, job or agency he serves. In my own experience, I have led prayers at meetings, wakes, dinners and other events serving a group who are mostly Christian and Jewish. Last year, I was asked by the Jewish War Veterans to do the opening prayer and benediction at the local veterans’ breakfast. That was an honor. I have also participated in funeral services, memorial services and the annual Four Chaplains’ service. These are usually no problem, though I find the Four Chaplain’s Service a grey area and have yet to fully reconcile all of it with my beliefs. I do it out of obligation in my role as chaplain.
A hazard of chaplaincy for Heathens is the grey areas, and each must deal with them himself. Heathens differ in subtle ways on religious matters, even in the same household. For instance, I do not like churches and will only attend for special family events, such as weddings or as expected as a chaplain. My wife, who had been a music major, sees churches as venues for classical music. She does not mind them.
Chaplaincy at this level can be very rewarding. I’ve made friends and had the opportunity to participate in worthy activities. On the other hand, I have occasionally come across situations which grated a little on my Heathen sensibilities. One just has to grit his teeth and let it pass. It is a small price to pay for the benefits. Keep in mind that I am still in the early years of this thing. Where it will take me is anyone’s guess.
I have to admit that most of the people I serve see me as a generic interfaith minister, though some are more aware of my personal Heathen beliefs. I have to use a lot of discretion, because in this area discretion is the better part of valor. Sometimes the line between discretion and selling out seems to narrow, but as of yet, it has never been blurred. Personally, I cannot sell out as it is not in my nature to do so. If that time comes, I will quit the chaplaincy rather than cede my Heathen integrity. So far, it has not even come close.
I will be compiling a text for those Heathens and other Pagans who may have the opportunity to serve as a chaplain.
As I have said in the past, chaplaincy is one of those roles which we can accept so as to better establish ourselves in the society in which we live. Heathens have no problem serving organizations in other traditional roles such as chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer and sergeant at arms. Chaplaincy ought to be no obstacle. Members of other religions have done it for years, so why not us? To be accepted, we need to step up to the plate.
This is uncharted territory, but my hope is that I might be able to share my experiences for other Heathens inclined to serve as chaplains and interfaith ministers.
What do you need to be a chaplain? You have to be so secure in your beliefs that you do not feel the slightest bit threatened dealing with aspects of other religions. You have to apply a generic approach to religion and use the lexicon most familiar to average folks. When using formal prayers, remember that the descriptions of God actually equate with our own Gods and Goddesses. God of Might / Power is Thor, Father God and God of Wisdom and Understanding is Odin, God of Mercy is Frigga, and so on. Most of all, you have to be willing to put your own self aside for the greater good. You are not there to promote Heathenism. Your goal is to do the most good you can. In that, you honor the Gods. I personally feel I represent the Gods, even if anonymously. I believe that serving as chaplain will be one more step to establishing Heathenism as a valid religion to the general public.
The Following are a few other things to consider:
Although there are shared aspects to the various religions out there, there are also differences. You are part of your chosen denomination. This not only applies generally to Paganism, and Heathenism, but to your specific sect. Though chaplaincy means serving the spiritual needs of all within the group, it does not mean that you regard all religions equally. You are expected to keep the traditions and rules of your particular denomination. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is an adage whose intent has its limits.
You must be aware that however you serve, you are still a Heathen or Pagan. You have Heathen or Pagan ideals and morals. In your service to others, you cannot afford to lose sight of yourself. Whether they know of your particular personal religious affiliation is of small consequence. What matters is that you know.
Like the Yew Tree, we can bend and flex to a point. However, we must always snap back to who we are.
As to other religions, you do not have the respect the belief. You must respect the right of others to believe in it. Most important is that you respect the people you serve.
Our role is not to help those under our purview to be better Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, etc. Their specific religious beliefs are something they need to take up with their own clergy. We are not a substitute for their priests, rabbis, ministers and imams.
Though the bylaws of various associations state that the chaplain is their spiritual leader, he is in fact just a servant. The chaplain’s main duty is to read prayers at meetings and other events. He may have to lead specific ceremonies, such as a memorial service for departed members. The chaplain may be called to visit members who are ill or in need. Even in this, he is not a substitute for their clergyman. The chaplain represents the organization in a capacity of moral support.
A chaplain ought to avoid theological discussions beyond superficial conversation, insofar as members of the group he serves. He is a spiritual advisor in a very limited capacity. Direct those seeking a deep discussion to consult their own clergy.
Understand that we cannot just jump out there and tell folks of the wonder of Heathenism or the joys of Paganism. Many do not understand. They have been told that their sect is the only right one. Similar sects are considered heretical to a greater or lesser degree. Very different denominations are regarded by them as wrongful. Entirely different religions may be considered as evil, according to some of their doctrines. Things that even hint of magick can startle them, even if it is essentially the same as common conventional religious practices. So can certain symbols. In some places, a deck of Tarot cards can cause concern. Leave the tools of the trade home.