Practicing Secular Chaplaincy – Naturally

Practicing Secular Chaplaincy – Naturally June 23, 2014

Editor’s Note: Chris Highland, like several other Clergy Project members, has made a career transition that allows him to keep the valuable, natural elements of his ministerial training while jettisoning the supernatural. 

By Chris Highland 

When I left my ordination after 14 years in the Presbyterian church in the fall of 2001, my silent and shocked colleagues listened to my statement and watched me walk out.  Then they calmly followed the agenda into the evening’s worship, while I went out for a beer with friends, several of whom are still active clergy

My colleagues accepted my renunciation, because they knew nothing would essentially change for me. I would still be active as an interfaith chaplain, a teacher, writer and friend. It was a “natural” thing for me to do ­– leave the church and leave faith.

That same fall, my first book, Meditations of John Muir, was published. Collecting some words of wisdom from the writings of the great naturalist was a joy. John of the Mountains was emerging as a kind of “secular saint” for me. After working in schools, jails and streets as a chaplain for many years, I delighted in a more down-to-earth practice of spirituality that fit nicely into the radically inclusive model of chaplaincy I had grown for a long time.

For me, a chaplain goes where people are, no matter where they are, to practice a presence of compassion. A chaplain is a professional, ethical, responsible and knowledgeable person, who acts as a counselor, mediator and advocate when appropriate. A chaplain does not represent one sectarian group but represents basic humanity regardless of faith or no faith – a human being among human beings.

One great example of the ideal chaplain is Walt Whitman. He was never a chaplain but he was just about everything I seek to emulate in a chaplain.

Walt Whitman was no preacher. He was a practitioner of the practical with poetic exuberance. However you may try to label him, whatever camp you try to stick him in, Whitman was plainly and simply a secular chaplain. When he was visiting wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, he had no agenda but to be with people no one else really wanted to be with, to listen and do whatever needed to be done: empty a bedpan, change a dressing, write a last letter home, recite a poem, play a game with the sick and sad.  In his own words, he would provide “sympathetic nourishment . . . silently cheer them up  . . .and  adapt to emergencies. . .” No talk of heaven or hell, faith or church, north or south. It sounds like a very natural thing to do, doesn’t it?  It’s natural and very, very difficult.

By my guidelines, there are few good chaplains (and I have often not reached my own goals very well). Most chaplains I have known are very sectarian, even when they say they are not. Few have a good understanding of a secular way of thinking and are unsure about how to handle atheists. Agnostics are fine, because they can be led to faith. This fails my test for a proper practice of chaplaincy. The military, prisons and streets are filled with preachers who pass as chaplains. The services, the penitentiaries, the shelters, the schools, are merely a mission for a particular gospel, faith and god. This makes me sad, when it doesn’t make me mad! How dare they dump their theological stuff on vulnerable people! Shame on them. Chaplains can be so much better, so much more effective than that.

I do know some good ones. I know chaplains who will assist anyone without regard to faith perspective, who will sit with anyone and pray or not, talk or not, read from any scripture or not. In the very liberal area where I live there are hundreds of seminary-trained, interfaith-sensitive people running around.

So many of us who survived the cold tombs of theology and have officiated at the memorial for the Church, find ourselves in unusual places learning to adapt.

Here’s the secret:  you don’t have to call yourself a secular chaplain to practice this.  That’s what makes it natural, naturally meaningful and relevant.  Do what Walt did.  Go where your listening ear and caring heart are most needed.  Do what some of the great spiritual teachers did (minus the supernatural distraction).  Do what needs to be done.  Do the right thing.

This year I’m teaching three semesters in Literature and Humanities at the College of Marin. The course is called “A Wild Spirituality of Nature: On the Trail with John Muir and John Burroughs” and it’s open to both theists and nontheists. You see I still use the word, “spirituality” (in a Carl Sagan way). But students find along their intellectual hike with these naturalists that all terms have been redefined. We’re left in the wilderness of freethought and discovery! We hear the wild gospel (Torah, gita, dharma, Qur’an, science text) that calls to us as Secular Chaplain Muir preached it:

“The natural and common is more truly marvelous and mysterious than the so-called supernatural. Indeed most of the miracles we hear of are infinitely less wonderful than the commonest of natural phenomena, when fairly seen.”
~John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

A secular chaplain is privileged to saunter out into the wilderness to welcome the natural and common and to step straight into the middle of that marvelous forest of wonder!

Chris Highland served as an Interfaith Chaplain for 25 years. In 2001 he left his Christian ordination and “came out” as a non-theist freethinker. He is a teacher, writer, housing manager and a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Secular Student Alliance. Chris is the author of ten books (See the listing in the Books and Publications tab) and host of Secular Chaplain. Originally from Seattle, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife Carol, director of the Marin Interfaith Council.

Photo Credits Attribution: Adam Cuerden

6/24/14 Several small edits in the text have been made at the request of the author.


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  • Kent Truesdale

    Chris, I found your post truly inspiring! We really need to hear more from people like you who are pioneering a newly humane and fundamentally honest way of doing ministry.

  • Very kind, Kent. This model could really be practiced anywhere by honest, reasonable people of faith or no faith. Some are sprouting up here and there. Quite encouraging.

  • John Lombard

    While I agree with this in principle…in practice, I don’t think that the “non-sectarian chaplain” idea really works. There simply is no such thing as a chaplain who can minister to everyone’s needs.
    Consider a devout Christian, hospitalized with terminal cancer, who seeks a chaplain to pray with them, and to offer them assurance of going to Heaven after they die…or perhaps they are Catholic, and wish to do a confession and be absolved of their sins.
    Can the atheist “non-sectarian” chaplain do this? Of course not…at least, not with any real honesty.
    Don’t get me wrong…I’m a big fan of the non-sectarian chaplain idea. But the plain fact is, many people (perhaps the majority) don’t want a non-sectarian chaplain…they want someone who shares their beliefs and values, who can offer comfort and reassurance based on the religious beliefs and rituals that they hold dear. If an atheist chaplain (or a religious chaplain with different beliefs) is called in such a situation, they either A) cannot offer the support the recipient desires, or B) must dishonestly pretend to beliefs that they actually do not hold.

  • You raise important issues and questions, John. I can only speak from my 30 years of experience as an “interfaith” and now secular chaplain “re-presenting compassion” among people regardless of faith. You’re certainly right that there are people who, in crisis, want a representative of their specific faith to assist them. No problem; that’s their right. A professional, balanced interfaith/secular chaplain has no problem referring to other chaplains or clergy, since chaplaincy is not about competition (competing for clients or “souls”). I built up good working relationships with chaplains and clergy of many traditions over the years and never hesitate to call them when a request has been made.

    By the way, I was glad to build trust among people so they would request Bibles, Qur’ans, Gitas, the Tao, Buddhist, Mormon, JW, Wiccan and many more “spiritual texts” that I would happily bring to them. Of course, if there was discussion, I would offer my opinions, as such! (I could tell lots of stories about the open, interfaith gatherings we would have each week–see my book, My Address is a River).

    Also, sorry to say, I’ve encountered some chaplains who are primarily “present” to “pray for” others. They are quick to speak of their faith, but slow to listen or be sensitive to another person’s beliefs or feelings. I often found myself “picking up the pieces” from those “preaching moments,” listening to the disappointment or anger.

    I think the images we have of chaplains and their role need to expand. I’ve seen it work in practice and have practiced this for a long time. Most people, even many devout Christians, Muslims, etc, appreciate this wider, more welcoming and inclusive approach to service. I’ve found that a majority of people simply want someone to be present with them, to listen and assist in caring ways. It’s not so much about sharing “faith” as sharing common humanity, especially in times of suffering. Thanks for the comment (sorry, meant to “reply” to you)

    • John Lombard


      Again, agree with most of what you said; and yes, I definitely have problems with those chaplains who use their position as a platform to proselytize for their religion (although, as an ex-evangelist, I understand why they do it…if they sincerely believe someone is going to Hell, they have a moral obligation to try to warn that person, just as if I see someone in danger of being hit by a car, I have a moral obligation to try to warn them).

      My father was an evangelical Anglican minister, who also took chaplain duties at hospitals in the community. When facing people who had requirements or expectations that he could not meet, he would mostly try to find someone else more suitable to their needs. The exception to this was atheists…he was absolutely clueless who he should call to help atheists (this was a small rural community 40 years ago…not a lot of atheist chaplains around), and usually ended up getting into discussions to try to convince them of the reality of god (he was convinced most of his life that atheists were just angry at god).

      I’d agree with what seems to be your ‘ideal’ — a chaplain who will administer to more ‘universal’ needs (comfort, companionship, counseling, etc.) of everyone, without seeking to insert or impose their own beliefs; and who, if facing a situation where they cannot meet the recipient’s needs, to recommend someone who can.

      But given the nature of religion, in the end, I think that it’s the atheist chaplain who’s best suited to this particular role…and perhaps some Buddhists? For most others, if they truly believe in their own religion, and particularly in an afterlife, they do have a moral obligation (from their perspective) to try to make others aware of that. As I myself argued back in my Christian days, “What use to administer to a person’s temporary needs here on Earth, but not try to at least warn them about the perils of an eternity in Hell?”

      • Ah, John, you ex-evangelists! (I was a Campus Crusader myself). Your father’s experience rings true for many of us I’m sure. You are certainly right about the Heaven and Hell folks. However, most people in crisis are not those folks or they are simply people in crisis. I’m not convinced an “Atheist” Chaplain is the most effective way forward since identifying immediately as “I’m NOT one of Those (believers)” is not really helpful. I know, saying “Secular” can have the same effect but I’m fishing for better terms. I most often wore the badge of an “Interfaith” Chaplain which opened many opportunities to discuss various faith positions. It became very educational, for those who were interested. The HH’s (Heaven Hell) weren’t much interested, but I brought them bibles anyway (smile). I admit, the most fun part is when people try their “evangelical tricks” and verses on me and my background, training and experience could blow them away. . .but I try to practice that compassion that maybe, just maybe, will rub off a little (?). Buddhists were always strong supporters of my work (and they don’t tend to identify as Atheist, though many are). Here’s the thing: suffering is suffering, and most people just want/need another sensitive person to be with them through it. I think good Chaplains are often simply good Human beings. I say the same about good believers as well, or anyone else for that matter.

        • John Lombard

          When I said atheists might make the best chaplains, it was simply because they won’t feel any particular need to push their beliefs (or lack thereof) on others. For a religious chaplain, issues of salvation can be equally or more important than more ‘mundane’ issues of ministering to the individual’s temporal needs.
          I agree completely that one shouldn’t identify oneself as an “atheist chaplain”; I think that “Interfaith chaplain” sounds quite good.
          And yeah…I’ve had more than a few well-intentioned efforts by various pastors, missionaries, and evangelists to ‘bring me back into the fold’. Not only were their efforts entirely unsuccessful, in several cases I ended up leaving them with serious doubts and questions. 🙂

          • Yes, I think Humanist or Interfaith can work for a secular, yet a chaplain would need to be clear with any supporting groups that he or she was both a nontheist and willing to actively network with other clergy. It helped that I have a seminary background and experience teaching world religions. Not every secular chaplain may have that knowledge, but ought to have an openness to learn. After all, ongoing education seems essential to a secular practice!