The Skilled Chaplain


Saul Ebema, D.Min.



In the book, “The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology”, Taylor writes that “the way to help persons deal with their problems is to help them change the beliefs that contribute to their distressing feelings and behaviors”. I find this quote from Taylor to be true because skilled counseling involves a process, the aim of which is to help others to help themselves by making better choices.


The Hospice chaplain’s repertoire of skills needs to include the ability to do theological reflection, spiritual assessment, and the ability to help people change specific aspects of their feeling, thinking and acting.


In a counseling relationship, the chaplain and patient work together to explore every aspect of the patient’s circumstances, enabling the individual to re-evaluate his or her experiences, capabilities and potential.


Chaplains need to be able to facilitate full and confidential expression of the patient’s feelings, without diverting any attention to their own feelings. The responsibility for change is placed with the patient. This means that when changes are made, they are self-motivated, and therefore more likely to last and to be effective.


Qualities of a skilled Counselor


According to Meier & Davis (1997), “In no other profession does the personality and behavior of the professional make such difference as it does in counseling.” Therefore a good chaplain must possess the following virtues;




A good chaplain is someone who can learn not to make judgments on behalf of the person being helped. Although chaplains have their own values, these should not be imposed on the patient and the chaplain must retain the ability to listen to and accept the views of the patient.


Recognizing Limitations


It is easy for inexperienced chaplains to fall into the trap of feeling solely responsible for their patient’s progress. Chaplains do not possess a magic formula to solve all of life’s problems and it is important to remember that ultimately it is the patient that makes choices in their own life.

Chaplains can assist patients to think through options, explore motivators and hurdles, set goals, formulate plans of action and so on. A patient, however, must assume the responsibility for taking actions in order to accomplish progress in his/her life. There are many moments in the counseling relationship in which it is important to recognize the limitations of counseling. When progress seems “stuck”, some of the best plans involve tolerating ambiguity, sharing responsibility with the patient, re-establishing the role of the counselor and/or sharing information with a supervisor.


Patience and Acceptance


A chaplain needs to use his or her self control in dealing with people, even those people who are not likeable.


Drawing the Line


Maintaining a critical perspective towards the chaplain-patient relationship is essential in order to avoid emotional burnout, misjudgment and unproductive distribution of power. “A common mistake for beginners is to worry too much about patients. There is a danger of incorporating patients’ neuroses into our own personality. We lose sleep wondering what decisions they are making. We sometimes identify so closely with patients that we lose our own sense of identity and assume their identity. Empathy becomes distorted and militates against a therapeutic intervention” (Corey 2001).




Learning to grow into a more complete person from the experience of life’s hard knocks can be a valuable quality in a chaplain.


Social Skills


It is not enough to be considered to be a good listener. Chaplains learn through training how to perceive all aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication, and deliberately improve their listening skills by using appropriate techniques during counseling.


Genuineness and Warmth


Effective chaplains have a genuine interest in other people. This is often referred to as respect or unconditional positive regard for the person being helped. People who do not need others in their lives may find this sort of warmth to unknown people as being problematic.




Chaplains must show complete discretion, never revealing what others say or do within the counseling context. Confidentiality is paramount in counseling relationships.

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