What it Takes to Be a Chaplain
Gill Fiford is a student from Alpha Crucis College studying chaplaincy. She decided to do her internship experience with Major Josevata (Joe) Serevi, who works with people in the court system and on the streets, learning the ins and outs of what it takes to be a chaplain in the community.
Gill is a mum of three from Wellington and a Christian. She is undertaking a two-year diploma in chaplaincy, and as part of her first year is required to do an internship. She contacted a chaplain she knew from Wellington who connected her to Captain Shaun Baker, chaplain at The Salvation Army Territorial Headquarters. Shaun suggested doing an internship with Major Joe Serevi who is a mission officer for Street Ministry and a court officer in Wellington. This began a six-month mentoring relationship between Gill and Joe to learn more about being a chaplain to those in the court system and on the streets.
The calling to chaplaincy
Gill first felt the call to chaplaincy four years ago and kept putting it off, but always felt the Holy Spirit nudging her over that time. For most of her life, people would approach her and open up to her about what was going on in their lives. The turning point for Gill was God speaking to her, despite her putting it aside for so long: ‘God’s saying it’s time to activate you. You are my hands and feet on the ground’. She shared this calling with a leader in her church and they encouraged her to take a leap of faith and pursue chaplaincy. The next day she rang Alpha Crucis College to enrol in their chaplaincy course. They told her the course was closed and had already started; however, miraculously there was one space left for her.
‘If the Holy Spirit’s in there with you, then the Holy Spirit makes the path easy … so I’m just seeing where this Holy Spirit-led ride is going to take me,’ she shared.
The practical internship experience has been invaluable for Gill: ‘It’s been 150 hours of observing Joe and seeing what he’s doing, the interactions and how God’s moving, and picking up on the field skills that you wouldn’t otherwise learn through studying’.
Building trust with people
Gill shadowed Joe to his meetings with people on the street who were homeless or displaced, with addictions or other issues. They also went to court to support people through legal proceedings. Joe runs a life group every Wednesday with people in the community and Gill was blessed to witness the changes in these people and to see their genuine heart for God.
One story that stood out for Gill during the internship was when they went to St Peter’s Church to meet with a lady who Joe had been working with for two years. He had found accommodation for her when she was homeless. She came into the church bundled up in coats and a hat on a freezing day. Gill said she had a beautiful soul and was in the chaplaincy room sharing what was on her heart. ‘It naturally evolved into her giving her life to the Lord. Joe did a karakia (prayer) and it was beautiful, and she was in tears … it was such a holy moment … she walked out, and you could just see she was radiant and looked lighter’.
But the point of salvation doesn’t happen overnight. Although Gill has a passion for sharing Jesus straight away, she now knows it is a slow, evolving process of meeting physical needs first, then spiritual needs second. ‘You work with them for a long time, demonstrating Jesus and suddenly it’s time for the final element which is spiritual because they’ve got the rest of their needs in order.’ She sees it as a natural progression of them getting to know the chaplain who meets their natural needs first, before their heart can open up to meeting with God.
Another thing Gill has had to consider is how she moderates her words depending on her audience; for example, if a person has been to church before, she could mention God earlier in the conversation, whereas if they haven’t ever been to church, she would wait. ‘When you’re listening, that’s how you put a picture together to decide how far you go or don’t go and what you say,’ she said.
She has also learned that chaplaincy is ‘very holistic, fluid and not time-bound’. A street chaplain can’t restrict a meeting to a half-hour slot; they must be willing to sit with someone for as long as that person needs.
A chaplain must, very importantly, first build trust with their client. Some clients may not talk much or want to open up, which is why it’s important to start with light conversation to get them comfortable first. Joe has taught Gill that sometimes you need to sit with them and wait for them to ask for what they need, as the chaplain can’t assume what they need if the client doesn’t say.
Over six months, Gill has witnessed the various needs and grief in people, and learned that it’s important a chaplain responds appropriately depending on the client’s circumstances. Whether they are on the streets, in prison or going through a court process, a chaplain always adapts.
Taking the ministry outside the church
In Joe’s time with Gill, he has encouraged her to think more about the purpose of chaplaincy and what it means to her, before beginning her journey as a chaplain.
For Gill, chaplaincy is about ‘taking the ministry outside the walls of a church’, whatever ministry is needed for people. She mentioned how, before studying chaplaincy, she would meet people while walking her dog who would share the issues they were having, including some heavy traumatic experiences. She said these people weren’t homeless and didn’t need their physical needs met, but rather their emotional needs. Meeting both physical and emotional needs are equally important in chaplaincy.
Chaplaincy is also ‘offering comfort and shining like Jesus shines’, according to Gill. It isn’t always about telling someone about Jesus but allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to people. She believes every meeting is God-appointed: ‘Nothing is by chance or by accident. It’s there by design. Let the Holy Spirit go first and then follow along behind.’
The situations Gill witnessed with Joe were not always easy, as sometimes a chaplain’s job is to advocate for a client. One such situation involved a gang member who was in legal trouble and going through a court process. Joe was there to support him through the process, especially since he was clashing with his lawyer.
Gill said, ‘essentially it is two parties that you’re trying to bring peace and clarity to’. Both the man and the lawyer had different perspectives and couldn’t meet in the middle. The client couldn’t read or write so was limited in his ability to advocate for himself. The chaplain’s role is to come alongside and advocate for the client as a kind of mediator.
‘You’re there to advocate for them, to come alongside and to bring peace, to also seek understanding and not form an opinion, but to absorb information and sift it,’ she said.
She has learned that being a chaplain is not about taking sides, not even the client’s side. Chaplains are peacemakers and are there to be patient and to listen. One of her biggest challenges has been her need to fill the silence in a conversation.
‘For someone that likes to speak quite a lot, I’ve had to focus on being comfortable with silent pauses because often it’s in the silence that the actual communication starts coming through.’
Another valuable lesson Gill has learned is that street chaplaincy is about empowering people to do things for themselves, rather than doing everything for them. ‘Otherwise you become like the parent, having to run around after them and that’s not empowering them. It’s keeping them locked down. You need to lift them up and out and say, “you can do this”.’
Some clients can respond with aggression, so it can be difficult to know as a chaplain how to respond. Something she has been taught to do is to keep a distance if a person is particularly violent, or try to distract them by telling them to sit down and have
a cup of tea to calm them down.
Another big part of street chaplaincy is connecting with other organisations (not just The Salvation Army), who can help provide support to clients, such as food, shelter and clothing. Joe frequently partners with such organisations and emphasises the importance of using the resources around you to help people.
Gill is not sure what kind of chaplaincy she wants to pursue but has always been interested in prison chaplaincy. However, since doing street ministry for her internship and because of how often strangers open up to her when she’s out walking her dog, she recognises there may be a calling there. She will listen to the Holy Spirit’s prompting for where chaplaincy takes her after her studies.
Gill has felt privileged to tag along with Joe for the past six months and said Joe is a ‘beacon’ that people in Wellington are drawn to: ‘What he is doing in the community is bringing a Jesus presence into Wellington. Those kinds of shoes you can’t fill easily because he’s built so many good relationships and he’s a trusted figure walking around the streets.’ Joe doesn’t approach people but allows them to come to him; he has taught Gill that as a chaplain, you don’t force anything but let people come to you of their own free will and share what their need is so you can meet that need.
Being a chaplain out in the community—whether that is on the streets, in the prisons or in the courts—can be unpredictable. ‘No one day is the same. Every day is so different, and you can’t plan because you’re dealing with people like shifting sand,’ Gill said.
Gill says she has witnessed the beauty of lives transformed when allowing the Holy Spirit to guide in connections and conversations as a chaplain in the community.
Salvation Army Chaplaincy
A chaplain is a representative of The Salvation Army, attached to a secular community and working typically in an out-of-church setting. The Salvation Army chaplain’s role in the Army’s mission is to provide professional, caring pastoral support and offer people opportunities to explore spirituality in a Christian context.
A chaplain seeks, without undue pressure or coercion, to influence and lead others into a saving relationship with Christ, remembering that their most powerful witness may be personal example rather than words. Chaplains take a holistic approach to life, giving attention to people’s body, soul, mind and their community.
Words: Hope Burmeister