Recently, I reviewed the story of St. Martin of Tours (AD 316–397) with my class. Martin, who was born to pagan parents, became drawn to Christianity early in his life. But forced into the Roman army, he lived the life of a soldier starting at age fifteen. At one point, his company was moved to Gaul (modern-day France), and it was there that he saw a cold, homeless beggar by a city gate. With nothing to give the beggar, Martin cut his cloak in half for the man. That very night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Christ wearing the very same half-cloak he had given to the beggar. Martin would eventually be freed from the army, becoming a monk and even the bishop of Gaul.
After his death, Frankish kings kept Martin’s cloak as a relic, the guardian of which came to be known as cappellanus. From the Latin root word cappa, meaning cloak, capellanus would come to English as “chaplain,” providing the basis of what chaplains are called to be like.
In reflecting on my own life, I cannot but state the important role chaplains have had for me while attending Adventist schools. For example, my wish to learn bass guitar came from our school’s chaplain and the worship bands he started. Thankfully, Adventism has a history of placing chaplains in high schools, universities, and hospitals.
Yet in my home conference of British Columbia/Yukon in Canada, the payroll for chaplains was stopped over fifteen years ago.
In British Columbia, we don’t have conference high school chaplains, rather a patchwork of three models that are far from ideal. The first model, as run by two of our six high schools, has the conference paying half salary for a Bible teacher with the other “chaplaincy half” being fundraised by the local school. A friend of mine who worked within this model shared that he was not seen as a “real pastor” because officially, he was just a part-time conference Bible teacher, not a pastor. The second model has the local pastor and church hosted in the school. This allows the town pastor to act as a de facto chaplain.
The third model is the one that causes me the most worry. For some of our British Columbia schools, the local pastors do not have an office in the school but rather drop by semi-regularly in a chaplain-like role. This has caused tension, for one pastor in this model shared that his church members were very upset because he was spending too much time at the school, reminding him that they are the ones paying his salary. Of course, this model takes a large amount of dedication, for it basically combines two full-time jobs into one. This creates a massive workload issue both personally for the pastor and spiritually for the school and churches.
Surely in British Columbia we can do better. As a teacher, I am worried about all these models, for they place everyone involved at a disadvantage—either the pastor, the churches, or worst of all, the students (yes, I have a bias). How can I guide my students to a full account of Jesus’s love when either the pastor is far too overworked to build relationships with them or, as a teacher, I’m not “allowed” to baptize my own students? Would my students be accepted into the church if I baptized them? I fear not, and I would rather not set them up for such an experience to find out. In fact, my biblical courses do not even count towards my Seventh-day Adventist teaching certificate because I graduated from a non-Adventist university. It breaks my heart that I cannot support my students to the full extent that the Holy Spirit has called me to. For as I pointed out in another article, although Jesus calls those baptized to go on and baptize, our church has placed that role solely on pastors.
Before you write me off as only speaking to a British Columbia reality of an Adventist cultural issue, let’s widen our scope. In Canada, we don’t have private hospitals—such a thing would be seen as a sociological sin—but we still have hospitals. Furthermore, we have prisons, public universities, and other institutions without any Adventist chaplains. My mentor pastor wished to start the change with training to correct this gap in our ministry. But where there once was support became lacking with new hires in some far-off administrative office. Why can’t we Canadian Adventists get this form of ministry going?
Taking another step back in our scope, we notice that at any Adventist university, there is only graduate-level work for chaplaincy aimed at hospital settings. Why is that? Where is the training or calling for police and fire chaplains, or for schools and prisons? What does it take for these areas to become more fulfilled in our educational/training paradigm?
I don’t have the answers, just a hope that by pointing these things out we will awaken to them. I fear that we have become comfortable with the status quo, perhaps even viewing it as “good enough.” But simply stated, it is not. It is not healthy for British Columbia Adventist schools to lack full-time chaplains; it is not good enough for Adventists in Canada to ignore this ministry, and we cannot sustain our hope for sharing the gospel as a North American church without educational pathways for people to engage with. Let us start to bug those in charge, reminding them of St. Martin and the call his story. Let us work together for the fullness of what chaplaincy can and should be.
Kevin R. McCarty is an Adventist teacher in beautiful British Columbia who started his university career with hopes of becoming a chaplain but realized that to work in British Columbia Adventist schools, he better become a teacher. He is an advanced graduate student in Indigenous & Interreligious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology.
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