Changing Times: An Interview with Chaplaincy Director Ron Klimp

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This year’s Chaplains’ Conference was the largest ever and thus far in 2013, the number of new chaplains who’ve already been endorsed is equal to all of 2012. Kim Chimienti sat down with Ron Klimp, Director of the CRC’s Chaplaincy & Care Ministry, to ask him about the differences between pastors and chaplains, where and how they serve, and what’s contributing to the growth of this specialized ministry.

1. How many years did you serve as a pastor and where?

I served three churches over the course of 21 years in parish ministry: beginning on a staff ministry for a large church in Grand Rapids,MI; to a small and newly organized church near Kalamazoo, MI; and then to a mid-size rural church near Cadillac, MI.

2. When did you start thinking about chaplaincy and why?

After a significant family loss I developed a friendship with a Christian counselor in the Cadillac, MI area who one day asked me what I knew about chaplains in the workplace. He was contracting with several area businesses to do EAP’s (Employee Assistance Programs), but had read about chaplains visiting workplaces and wondered whether that approach might be more successful in early problem intervention. I knew very little about chaplaincy, but had known Rev. Jake Heerema before he became the Director of Chaplains. We called and he encouraged us to explore the idea. Along the way, I became more and more interested in the concept of chaplaincy and decided to apply for the job myself (with approval from my church). That was in 1999 and I have loved chaplaincy ever since.

3. Where did you first serve as a chaplain (e.g. military, hospital, hospice, etc.)?

My first 11 years in chaplaincy were invested in serving contracts with a growing number of workplaces that ranged from retail businesses to industrial to institutional (local hospital and a community college) to community (city employees including police and fire). The common element was that they all had employees, clients or patients who faced periodic or persistent challenges that disrupted their normal routines or put them at least temporarily in a place of crisis and recovery.

4. What additional training and/or certification was required for you to be a chaplain?

I completed two units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) during my transition phase. This is the minimum required for endorsement by our denomination (and most others) for chaplaincy. Over the course of the next eight years I acquired two more units in order to have the four units required by national chaplaincy organizations for “board certification.”

5.  How does being a chaplain differ from pastoring a church?

I would compare it to becoming a specialist in any other profession. A doctor or lawyer can be a “general practitioner” dealing with all sorts of issues (like a pastor in parish ministry) or can choose to get very specialized training in one area of medicine or law. An endorsed chaplain has broad theological education and experience, but gets specialized training in pastoral care in order to serve in institutional or secular settings where crisis and recovery are the consistent realities.

6. In what ways did your experience as a church pastor help you as a chaplain?

Dealing with sin, grace, relationships, crisis and redemption from a solid theological base is something pastors do often but chaplains do always. We (and many employers of chaplains) require two years of parish ministry experience just to lay the foundation for their further training as a chaplain. I became more distinctly aware of the urgency of good pastoral care in times of crisis when I experienced the loss of a wife and daughter in an automobile accident 1992. I received both helpful and unhelpful attempts at “pastoral care” during that time and I also became distinctly aware of how poorly I had provided for my parishioners who had gone through losses and grief before me. I took my first unit of CPE not to become a chaplain but simply to be better trained as a pastor to deal with grief, loss and crisis.

7. What “gifts” and/or attributes do you look for in a prospective chaplain?

The individual considering chaplaincy needs to be a person with a heart of compassion a mind willing to struggle with deep emotional and theological questions that arise in the midst of crisis. It also helps to have personality traits similar to a “first responder;” in other words to be drawn into and energized by exposure to crisis rather than disturbed and drained by it. Most chaplaincy situations require physically moving from place to place and interacting with person after person all day every day. Contemplative folks should perhaps consider other options. But those who desire to bring God’s love and grace into the high stakes and nitty-gritty world of illness, brokenness, grief, tragedy and crisis ought to consider chaplaincy as a possible calling.

8. Does a chaplain receive a “call” just like a pastor would?

Yes. However, in order to complete this process, they must have a calling church willing to approve this new calling, hold his/her ordination credentials and also play a small but significant role in supervising and encouraging this agent of God serving outside of the local church.

9. Once a chaplain is in service, who are they accountable to?

Interesting question with a somewhat complex answer! In order to be endorsed as a chaplain a candidate must complete all the appropriate training and then apply for ordination and be hired by an organization or institution needing a chaplain (military, hospital, nursing home, etc., etc.). This specialist in pastoral care thus answers to his/her employer, to his/her calling church, and to our denomination (by way of obtaining and renewing endorsement through our office). Some chaplains choose to (or are required to) further apply for board certification from a national chaplaincy association. These chaplains are then also responsible for reporting on continuing education units and complying with appropriate standards of practice in order to maintain and renew this certification.

10.  What do you think is contributing to the increase in the number of chaplains?

There are a number of things such as:

  • large graduating classes from our Seminary plus a growing number of Article 23 ordinations (non-seminary)
  • a plateauing of parish ministry opportunities,
  • the growing visibility and professionalization of Chaplaincy, and
  • a younger generation that’s looking for fresh and dynamic ways to be involved in ministry other than the ways their parents or grandparents chose.

More could be written about chaplaincy and the opportunities it presents.  What surprises you most about chaplaincy ministry? What else would you like to know?

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