Book Review – Foundations of Chaplaincy: A Practical Guide by Alan T. Baker

Foundations of Chaplaincy: A Practical Guide by Alan T. Baker (2020: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

If you work in an Anglican School like me then you will know that there is a strong focus on professional development for staff. But, if you are in a role like mine as a school chaplain, then you will also know that relevant PD opportunities are pretty thin on the ground. Such is the highly specialised nature of our ministry that finding opportunities to reflect on what we do are not easy to come by.  

At a previous school I worked at, one of our end of year ‘rituals’ was to review our PD plan for the year and have the next year’s PD plan ratified. I had my regular meeting with the Head of Humanities to do this and shared my ongoing challenge of finding relevant PD opportunities. He encouraged me to develop what he termed a Professional Reading Library. If there was a lack of relevant conferences and  speakers then at least I could do some reading that stimulated my thinking and reflection on my chaplaincy practice.

It proved to be a profoundly helpful conversation and since then I have sought out books about school chaplaincy and have made reading and reflecting on them a key part of my PD.

Last year I worked my way through ‘Foundations of Chaplaincy: A Practical Guide’ by Alan T. Baker. I have to confess that my expectations were a bit low with this title given it was written by an army chaplain whose main chaplaincy experience had been with the US military. As I started reading the book I wasn’t sure that the army context would provide many helpful insights for my chaplaincy work in an Anglican school.

Reading the book it soon became evident that Baker draws on significant ministry experience, not only as a seasoned chaplain himself, but as someone who has taught courses at Fuller, Gordon-Conwell and Wesley Theological Seminaries. Baker trains and supervises prospective and current chaplains in a variety of settings. He has used these experiences to write a practical and deeply insightful book that does as the title suggests; provides a general foundation for the work of chaplaincy that is highly applicable in a variety of contexts, including my work in an Anglican school. 

Baker begins by providing a Biblical framework for chaplaincy using the ministry of Jesus as the model for what he sees as three foundational pillars of chaplaincy

  • Being intentional through movement and direction
  • Embracing diversity through connection and compassion
  • Seeking transformation through presence and service

He then unpacks this model using the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women in chapter four of John’s gospel.

Baker then outlines the four functional capabilities of a chaplain and devotes the rest of the book to unpacking these four capabilities in detail.

  • The Chaplain as Provider
  • The Chaplain as Facilitator
  • The Chaplain as Caregiver
  • The Chaplain as Adviser

I found the section on the chaplain as caregiver particularly helpful. While caregiving is always at the heart of what we do as school chaplains, in the last two years living through the COVID pandemic, care seems to have been even more front and centre of my ministry as many other opportunities in my chaplaincy role had to be scaled back or cancelled.  

Another helpful section had me reflecting upon the tension that lies at the heart of our ministry as a school chaplain. This tension is caused by balancing the demands of the faith community that sent us and the employing institution that hired us.  The duality of being in two institutions simultaneously is one of the most unique and challenging aspects of chaplaincy.[1]

Baker has a helpful diagram where he unpacks the four tensions of chaplaincy. In my context as a school chaplain these are the tensions between serving God, serving the students and staff, serving the school that employs me and serving the Anglican church. His way of navigating these tensions is not to attempt to resolve them but rather to lean into them.

“If the chaplain doesn’t feel the tension between his clergy role and the institutional role, then he has slipped too far to one side. Chaplains learn to not only live with the tension but to embrace it as a healthy sign. Tension is not resolvable.…Chaplaincy is a profession that deliberately makes role conflict a way of life. The relevant question is not whether tension exists but how useful the tension might be for providing ministry.[2]

While providing a foundation for chaplaincy, the book is impressively practical reflecting years of on-the-ground experience and Baker integrates the insights of others really well. Each chapter of the book contains sidebar interviews with chaplains in a variety of contexts sharing their insights. These are surprisingly helpful. When I first skimmed the book I was disappointed about how few references there were to the school context but found to my surprise as I read it how relevant the insights of experienced hospital, prison and army chaplains were to my own ministry context.  

This book would be ideal if you are part of a regular gathering of chaplains from a variety of ministry contexts as there is something for every chaplain in this. Each chapter ends with a list of questions that would facilitate really fruitful group discussions. Baker is a great conversation partner and his book is a deep source of wisdom and encouragement for those involved in this highly specialised ministry. Highly recommended.

[1] P 22, Foundations of Chaplaincy: A Practical Guide by Alan T. Baker (2020: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

[2] P 64. Apologies for the sexist nature of this quote but I thought the point being made here was a really good one. 

Andrew Stewart Written by:

Reverend Andrew Stewart has twenty years experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.

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