What is unique about a Chaplain in Disaster Relief?

February 1, 2017

“You must be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).

Disaster relief chaplaincy is a specialized form of chaplain ministry which serve multiple agencies and usually responds to the general community of victims during a crisis.

With greater awareness for the value of spiritual care in conjunction with physical care during emergencies, the disaster relief chaplain specialization has evolved into a major chaplain category.  The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief organization, the most highly recognized denominational disaster relief assemblage of many autonomous state groups, has cooperated with the American Red Cross in developing effective disaster relief services, including chaplains who provide spiritual care.

In disasters, spiritual care is often pictured as providing a calm presence, nonjudgmental listening, caring interventions, and offers the hope one can have through faith in Jesus Christ.

Disaster Relief chaplains come from a variety of professions and ministries. They may be pastors, chaplains, counselors, teachers, social workers, or psychologists. Disaster relief chaplains may also be laity – men and women who respond to God’s call upon their lives to provide care and compassion to hurting people during the crisis of disasters.

One unique aspect of many chaplains serving in disasters is that these providers are usually pastors or laity, therefore they do not work in a disaster environment on a routine basis and would not be considered professional disaster relief personnel. Instead, these chaplains are often volunteers from a variety of spiritual care settings who participate in training and gain significant disaster relief experience in order to be prepared for a response when spiritual needs emerge.

Chaplains in disasters provide caring ministry on the field of disasters, during and after the disaster occurrence, to any victim of the disaster. These caregivers receive specialized training in crisis and spiritual interventions.

A vital aspect of disaster chaplaincy is “the ministry of presence.” A major premise of care amid crisis is presence. The care of souls first requires being there. Simple, empathic, listening presence is a primary pastoral act, the presupposition of all other pastoral acts.

The power of this ministry is in its altruistic service. If chaplains provide compassion by hearing another’s burdens, then chaplains choose to “suffer with” those who are suffering. Providing compassion requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone and intentionally entering a place of crisis – danger, pain, loss or grief – during the spiritual and emotional crises of life.

The chaplain in disaster relief shares God’s presence with victims and offers the same words of assurance – “I am with you.” The chaplain cannot deny the reality of the crisis, should not minimize the sense of loss it causes, and may not be able to diminish any of the pain. But, the chaplain offers the comfort of God’s presence through words of comfort and assurance. Presence may invite a sense of community within the crisis, may lead to healing reconciliation, or may reconnect a disenfranchised person with God.