A New Kind of Chaplain
Traditionally, professional chaplains have undergone rigorous seminary training to be equipped to handle the challenges they will face in correctional institutions, hospitals, the military, and elsewhere.
But a more expedient path is available for training and mobilizing what are known as community chaplains. Typically, these are laypeople who learn the basics over three weekends. Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Chaplains Nathan and Cindy Timmerman, missionaries based in Seagoville, Texas, have taught such classes to more than 500 people since 2004.
“We believe in the priesthood of all believers,” says Nathan Timmerman. “God uses ordinary people who can become chaplains.”
The 30-hour classroom training program helps launch community chaplains in places as varied as an employment agency to a national airline. After obtaining the basic chaplaincy training, the new worker selects an area (such as health care or corrections) in which to specialize during a practicum.
While interning, the community chaplain must spend at least 12 hours engaged in a specialized ministry focus, obtain three references (including one from a professional chaplain), and serve a minimum of 50 hours under the direct supervision of a professional chaplain to proceed. When that happens, the trainee is classified as a lead community chaplain.
Although they initially don’t receive ministerial credentials, lead community chaplains become eligible to receive a local church endorsement. This type of ecclesiastical endorsement is often required to provide ministry in secular settings.
“There is a huge gap between professional chaplains and the local church,” Timmerman says. “We bridge that gap by training and equipping laypeople. If we’re going to be the Book of Acts Church, we should know that 39 of the 40 miracles occurred in the marketplace.”
“A lot of times we expect people to come to the church, but a community chaplain goes out to meet the people where they are,” Cordero says. “They go to places where a pastoral presence is needed but is lacking most of the time because it is outside the realm of a church.”
That includes such unlikely spots as a funeral home, bar, and public housing complex, Cordero says.
Yet Timmerman notes that many churches already are ministering in natural community chaplain sites, such as in prison outreaches or hospital visitation. The Timmermans are members of Trinity Church, an Assemblies of God megachurch in Cedar Hill, Texas, that promotes “marketplace” as one of its core values.
“Churches are full of laypeople already in the marketplace,” Timmerman says. “They often don’t realize that can be a platform by which they can provide ministry.”
The Timmermans say there are over 50 different venues in which community chaplains can serve. The Timmermans themselves periodically volunteer as chaplains on Holland America Line cruises, ministering to the staff and passengers. The cruises have afforded them opportunities to conduct Bible studies, preach, prayer walk through casinos and bars, and console grieving staff members who have just lost a loved one (employees can’t leave the ship for a funeral without losing their jobs).
Cindy Timmerman says by engaging with the general public, a chaplain is likely to encounter numerous people without religious ties.
“Seventy percent of the U.S. workforce has no church affiliation,” says Cindy Timmerman. “That means when a daughter gets pregnant out of wedlock, a son is experimenting with drugs, there is a death in the family, or a parent has a terminal illness diagnosis, they have no one to turn to for spiritual and emotional support.”
If a chaplain already has developed a relationship with such a person, there will be a connection to provide emotional support in life’s trials, she says.
Cordero notes that professional chaplains, most of whom are salaried or raising their own support as missionaries, are required to receive seminary training by the agencies or employers that hire them. But typically the locally trained community chaplain is a volunteer or working for minimal pay. Cordero commends the Timmermans for requiring rigorous preparation.
“They are serious about it,” Cordero says. “They put people through the paces; it’s not a gimme training.”
Roberto and Elizabeth Garcia are among those trained by the Timmermans. They serve as chaplains at seven metro Dallas McDonald’s restaurants as Marketplace Ministries chaplains, as well as at Woodmont Cabinetry. The Garcias spend about 20 hours a week ministering to more than 250 employees.
The Garcias ask employees if they need prayer or counseling for any family issues. They are available around the clock to visit an off-duty worker at home.
“Sometimes people just want somebody they feel safe with to listen,” says Elizabeth. “We always ask if we can pray for them.”
“Ministry isn’t just about singing in the choir or teaching a Sunday School class,” Nathan Timmerman says. “It has to take place beyond the four walls of the church. Our churches are full of people who love God but haven’t found their ministry niche.”
Rebecca Isaak, who lives in Duncanville, Texas, says the community chaplaincy hospice care training she went through solidified her faith and helped her fulfill God’s calling.
Isaak says she had compassion for the elderly while working 25 years as a hospital administrative assistant, but that didn’t turn into practical ministry until she went through training with the Timmermans in 2010.
“The course opened my eyes to how chaplains can represent God to people in crisis,” says Isaak, who survived an operation for pancreatic cancer in 1996. “If we just show up and bring the presence of God, it can bring peace. Sometimes we don’t have to say anything; sometimes we do. It’s about showing up in their world and embracing them.”