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Chaplains: leading the missional charge

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chaplains“If you go back to the origin of chaplaincy,…armies have used chaplains for quite a few centuries. In the Old Testament, there would be a priest in front of the Ark of the Covenant who would pray with the people and lead them into battle.”

—Dave Klassen, chaplain for the BC Lions football team and Vancouver Canucks hockey team.

Picturing my Mennonite Brethren friends and mentors marching alongside armies into battle is both difficult and humorous. The stereotype of a bearded and somber Mennonite chaplain (or even a skinny-jeaned, latté-wielding one) carrying the Bible and a well-worn copy of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus makes such an image even more absurd. However, the spirit of chaplaincy extends far beyond ministry to army personnel.

MBs across Canada hold chaplaincy positions in dozens of social and political contexts, including sports teams, prisons, retirement homes and affinity groups like motorcycle clubs. A chaplain is a counsellor, a mentor, a guide and a companion – a pastor to a specific and sometimes involuntary congregation. The role can be a challenge but also has the potential to be extremely rewarding.

For MBs, it represents a missional effort. Central Heights Church member Dave Klassen calls it “taking God to the people” instead of waiting for the world to come to church.

Sports: the guy in the background

It may seem strange that most of Canada’s professional sports teams have chaplains. After all, does God really care about a team’s record?

“I’m not a player, I’m not on the field. I’m not a coach, I don’t get paid by the team. So what is my role?” When he began the job, this question plagued Klassen, who chaplains the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and the Abbotsford Heat. “Do I just anoint people? Am I praying in the corner?”

Klassen found the answer in a picture published in The Province, a Vancouver-based newspaper, after the Lions won the Grey Cup in 2000. “There were three people on the cover of the sports page,” he says. “There was one guy with his helmet in the air, screaming he was so excited. Another guy was kneeling down praying, and another person behind them was watching.” Klassen was the guy in the background.

His job, he realized, is to remind the players why they love the game, helping them to rejoice both in their ability to play and in the one who gave them the opportunity.

Of course, Klassen and Winnipeg Blue Bombers chaplain Lorne Korol understand the balance of evangelism. “We openly share our faith,” says Korol, who played professional baseball before becoming a Christian at 35. “[But] I don’t go around the room hitting guys with the Bible.”

Korol, who attends Winnipeg’s The Meeting Place, conducts weekly Bible studies for Bombers players, coaches and staff, as well as game-day chapels for both the team and their opponents. “My role is one of a ministry of care,” he says, “but also to help to provide spiritual guidance for them both on and off the field, and to help them grow, not only as players, but more importantly, as men of God.”

With 46 guys on a CFL roster (and players on the practice squad and injury list), Korol has had plenty of opportunities to support and minister to players in their professional and personal journeys. He’s done five funerals for people within the Bombers family. “When real life meets sport, that’s when you’re in need,” he says.

Ministering to players is “like a golf course; you have to realize that everyone is at a different place and a different level,” says Klassen. “I’m not going to tee off a par five and pull out the putter. It’s not about trying to get them in the hole; it’s about where they are in their life.”

“I just believe that Jesus makes a difference, that he is the difference,” says Klassen. “And so, in the end I want to serve in as many ways as I can with the team.”

Photo: Design Pics

Photo: Design Pics

Care home: pastor to the living

The later years of life are often seen within Christian circles as simply a final push before the “finish line,” yet former Menno Home chaplain Don Enns worked hard to minister to his flock as a “regular congregation” (from 1995–2001). The residents had given administration a mandate: “Don’t just preach to us about heaven. We know we’re all going there, but you don’t have to remind us of that every day.”

In response, Enns worked to maintain a thriving, vital community, even conducting several marriages during his time at Abbotsford, B.C.’s Menno Home. He found that song and language were key to connecting with residents. At times, these tools would allow insight into souls that could not be reached in any other way.

In the Alzheimer’s wing, the effects were most notable. At times, Enns would sit down in front of an Alzheimer’s patient, place his hands upon theirs and ask, “How are you?” The patient’s response rarely made sense, yet “something woke up and I could minister to them.”

His seven years as Menno Home chaplain brought Enns challenges, but also great joy. He did everything a pastor would have done for a church (services, Bible studies and individual counselling), yet without the financial and growth worries of a conventional church leader. He worked in tandem with registered nurses, care aids, activity staff and administrators to provide the best spiritual care possible to the residents, many of whom were the age of his own deceased parents and had lived through World War II in Europe. “It felt like I was serving my parents,” he says.

“My ministry as a chaplain was the icing on the cake for my total ministry,” says Enns who is now retired and attends Westwood MB Church, Winnipeg; “the highlight of my whole ministry.”

Prison: shepherd for the black sheep

Like any pastor or leader, “I have a mandate within Scripture to lead my church,” says Tom Rathjen, chaplain at the minimum security Ferndale Institution and medium-security Mission Institution and also a member of Northview Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C. The difference: “I have a very high concentration of dysfunctional people or people with very difficult pasts. I also have an all-male audience and a captive audience.”

Rathjen is counsellor, pastor, administrator and volunteer coordinator in a role that often threatens to burst the seams of a conventional 40-hour work week. His chapel provides a place of safety and support for inmates, as well as limited employment as “chapel clerks.” The most difficult part of his job is meeting the bureaucratic requirements of government policy, yet his calling shines through the irritations.

One of the less obvious but essential roles of a prison chaplain is assisting and organizing the volunteers, many religiously motivated, who provide various services at the institution. Rathjen says volunteers are invaluable to his overall ministry. They are especially important as inmates are released and attempt to integrate back into society, and Rathjen must rely on volunteers to continue the care he began.

This ministry, the part “that no full-time chaplain has time to do,” is the vital bridging that helps these men (and women) move back to the community and reconnect, says Rathjen. Though a full-time community chaplain serves with ex-prisoners, much of the work falls to volunteer organizations like Abbotsford’s M2/W2 with their visitation and NOLA (No One Leaves Alone) programs.

A new focus on interculturalism is opening up prison chaplaincies to all religious leaders, ending the historical Christian monopoly. Within the next year or two, Rathjen will be in competition with Buddhist, Muslim, Baha’i and Wiccan chaplains for his position, but for now he continues to serve as he always has.

“I think the future of chaplaincy looks good,” says Rathjen. “I think that pluralism and relativism are raising their heads and affecting how we do our chaplaincy, but at this point, as long as we are contractors, we can still be solid Christians presenting a solid gospel and we don’t have to water down anything.

“I’ve never had such a great sense of fulfillment in my life as in the work I’m doing right now,” says Rathjen.

Biker club: gospel messenger on a hog

Ron Dyck thought the Christian Motorcycle Association (CMA) members at his church were “‘biker wannabes’ – until I was asked to play guitar and lead worship at one of their spiritual emphasis weekends.”

Dyck, former moderator of the Saskatchewan MB conference and a long-time motorcycle owner, joined a Regina CMA chapter in 2003. Despite never having pastored, he was elected as chaplain for the local chapter. A network engineering manager who describes his previous role at the conference as catering to his “organizational and analytical” strengths, Dyck embraced the opportunity to stretch in a new direction.

The CMA combines the positive elements of biking culture with a central focus upon Christian ministry and evangelism. Dyck’s chapter, The Ninety And Nine, holds a weekly Wednesday ride and attends numerous bike rallies and charitable fundraisers. He organized a weekly Alpha group and gives short sermons at many of the bike rallies.

“Our mission is to win hearts and souls for Christ in the biking community as well as the community at large, through building relationships,” Dyck says. “The verses that have been most beneficial to me are in Ezekiel, where it talks about the watchmen and the responsibility they have. If they see someone coming and they raise the alarm, the blood of the people will not be on their hands, but if they see it and they don’t say something then it will.”

“Yes, it comes down to a recognition that I am not privileged to be the child of God,” Dyck says, “I am lucky that someone has presented God’s message to me.” Many people – often carrying “a lot of baggage” – haven’t heard, or haven’t been open to that message. “I have started to learn to see those people through Christ’s eyes.”

University: mentor and bridge-builder

“University students do not need easy answers,” says Rebecca Stanley, MB-designated chaplain at the University of B.C., 2007–2010. “They need people who will walk with them as they ask challenging questions about how the faith of their childhood stands up in the face of today’s world. They need people who will demonstrate a life lived in light of God’s redemptive and peacemaking work.”

A multi-faith organization, the UBC Chaplains’ Association consists mainly of campus workers representing Christian denominations. The B.C. Conference of MB Churches fundraised a half-time salary for Stanley as the MB chaplain at UBC with Ron Toews providing oversight along with a chaplaincy committee.

Stanley’s role involved attending Association meetings, collaborating with other chaplains on special events, taking part in the “Chaplains in Rez” program at Gage Residence and, of course, serving Mennonite Brethren students on the campus, whether assisting them in finding housing or praying for them over coffee.

In her official work on campus, she was obligated to determine a student’s religious background (Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Anglican, Baptist, Mennonite, etc.) and direct him or her to supports in that particular community; however, “if a student had no connection to a particular religion or denomination, I could share about my own faith journey.”

Stanley observes that in a context where the aggressive evangelistic posture of some campus groups created tension, “my role was to ‘bridge the gap’ between the more aggressive groups and the mainline denominations.” Understanding the concerns of both sides, she helped navigate healthy dialogue.

“My chaplaincy work was closely tied to our pastoral ministry with Urban Journey [a BCMB church planting venture],” says Stanley. “I believe it’s important for university students to connect with a church community while studying, so alongside my personal chaplaincy work, I made it a priority to connect students with local church communities.”

At the same time, “my role as a chaplain moved me out of church culture…to learn what it truly means to be missional,” Stanley says. “It is only as Christians live out a [Micah 6:8] calling – living what we preach, offering mercy to the very ones we think don’t deserve it and demonstrating a posture of humility before our Creator and the world – that God’s mission is furthered.”

Stanley calls it “a joy” to provide opportunities “for students to honestly consider the intersection of their faith with learning.” Now as a UBC law student, she volunteers as chaplain for the Christian Law Students Association, and continues to break down stereotypes about Christians by endeavouring “to treat all people with respect, engage in thoughtful discussions and humbly share our faith journeys with those who are open to hear.”

—Paul Esau was a summer intern with CCMBC and the MB Herald. He is a member of The Life Centre, Abbotsford, B.C.

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