The Art of Sharpening the Tool of Chaplaincy — A Collaborative Approach

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17 NIV).

Preparing a chaplain for tomorrow’s ministry is like sharpening a woodworking hand tool. A chisel or hand plane is indispensable to achieve ‘fine woodworking’. Wood craftsmen of old, void of power tools, understood not only how to use such hand tools but even more critically how to sharpen them. A chisel or plane with a very sharp edge can cut the thinnest sliver of wood with the highest precision, but a dull one gouges the wood. Before knowing how properly to sharpen a chisel or hand plane blade, I rarely used them in my hobby of furniture craftsmanship. After learning from professionals, I now can sharpen and keep these tools to a razor-sharp edge. This has changed how I approach my furniture projects and has given me an ability and precision previously unimagined. The difference was learning how to sharpen these two indispensable tools.

It is the same with chaplains. Chaplaincy is the fastest growing ministry in America. Chaplains minister to persons of all faiths in a wide variety of non-religious settings. Already commonplace in military, healthcare, correctional, legislative, corporate and campus settings, it is expanding to other settings such as first responders (police/fire/EMT), disaster relief, sports, recreational, national parks, cruise ships, civic organizations, retirement communities, and special interest groups like bikers and truckers. Preparation for ministry in such non-religious settings entails highly refined knowledge and sharpened skills to meet a broad range of human needs. Chaplains must be like precision instruments—on the cutting-edge of delivering effective ministry. Those with poorly honed skills can do irrevocable damage to others.

In times past, seminaries focused on preparing ministers for denominational service in local churches, with little thought given to chaplaincy. Typically, chaplains were called from the pastorate to chaplain ministry. Then they trained in vocational programs such as CPE or military schools that re-tooled them for cross-cultural ministry. Seminarians today demand a different approach. Many of them already sense a call to chaplaincy and are eager to sharpen their tools for that ministry while in school. However, few seminaries provide more than an introductory course in chaplaincy. This is like using a grinder on a chisel: it starts the honing process, but it cannot produce the razor-sharp edge needed for today’s cross-cultural ministry.

Seminaries need to provide a more refined skill set for vocational chaplaincy: specialized and advanced courses that prepare students for tomorrow’s institutional needs, not yesterday’s parish ministry requirements. Yet, most schools do not have the academic and vocational resources to provide such a comprehensive program of study. One solution is to develop a collaborative educational model for sharing resources between seminaries and with vocational institutions that employ chaplains. This approach need not detract from each school’s unique theological perspective and approach to pastoral care. At the same time, it would expand the range and depth of academic and vocational courses available to prepare ministers of various denominations for chaplain ministry.

The Marsh Center for Chaplain Studies envisions such a collaboration between seminaries, denominational endorsing agents, vocational institutions and agencies dedicated to effective chaplain ministry. Sponsored by B. H. Carroll Theological Institute, it has an interfaith advisory team of seasoned, professional chaplains whose experience brings practical relevance to bear on academic curriculum. The Marsh Center provides collaborative opportunities to develop and share master’s and doctoral curricular material that address basic and advance chaplain skills and competencies. This shared curriculum also addresses life-long educational needs of chaplains beyond the scope of traditional seminary coursework. Our first priority is to provide quality academic preparation that is theological, practical, and relevant for those who minister in settings where other religious workers rarely go.

The Marsh Center is also a research institution: an inter-faith forum that studies issues and develops solutions related to chaplain ministry. It combines academic, analytical, and vocational experience in a ‘think-tank’ that looks beyond the horizon to help chaplaincy maintain its cutting-edge ministry. Finally, the Marsh Center is an advocacy group. We partner with others who endorse, support and promote chaplaincy in the public square.

Like a razor-sharp woodworking chisel, a well-prepared chaplain becomes indispensable and delivers effective ministry and significant impact. The growing demand for effective chaplains requires a more refined and collaborative way to equip them, to provide solutions for their ministry, and to advocate on behalf of chaplaincy. This is our vision: to collaborate as academicians, researchers, and advocates to hone and promote a more effective chaplaincy.

More information about the Marsh Center can be found at

Dr. Jim Browning, Ch, Col (Ret) USAF

Published: Apr 25, 2020


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