General Bernard Montgomery, one of the great allied commanders of the Second World War, said, “The most important people in the army are the nursing sisters and the padres (chaplains): the sisters because they tell the men they matter to us and the padres because they tell the men they matter to God.”
Why are we offering chaplaincy ministry? Giving people a sense that they matter has to be high on the list of reasons.It may sometimes be by telling them, but it will often be by simple appreciation, and by giving them our time, as we listen to their stories, hearing of their hopes and aspirations, their worries and concerns. Companies may provide employee assistance programmes, trained counsellors may be available, and their colleagues may be very supportive, but the chaplain is often the presence which encourages, or the voice of affirmation that we all need to hear.
You could sum it up in one word: dignity. It includes people feeling that they have worth and value, and it can be found in work, family life, voluntary roles and church life. For Christians, it is an inherent part of our humanity, founded on our being created by God in his image, and reinforced by the words of Jesus, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Or, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, we are created, “a little lower than the angels, … crowned with glory and honour.”
In essence, to be treated with dignity is about being considered worthy of respect. Certain situations affirm us and bring out a clear, conscious sense of our own dignity: when we receive praise or promotions at work, when we see our children succeed, when we see a volunteer effort pay off and change our neighbourhood for the better. We feel a sense of dignity when our own lives produce value for ourselves and others. Put simply, to feel dignified, one must feel a sense of worth to others.It helps to be appreciated.
Sadly, for many, the sense of dignity and worth has been in marked and continuous decline. Many traditional industries, around which strong communities were formed, are a thing of the past. Unemployment and material poverty have contributed to a lack of purpose and personal value. Government austerity policies, with reductions in benefits, have all too often suggested that people are liabilities to be managed rather than human beings with inherent dignity and worth, individuals with potential that can be developed, people who have as much right to lead fulfilled lives as those who are wealthy.
It isn’t just chaplains who do this, of course. Kayleigh Garthwaite, in her book, “Hunger Pains” wrote of her experiences helping in a church run food bank. She found how each and every person who visited was treated with dignity and respect.
Long ago, in my first year in ordained ministry, an older colleague said, “You’ll be doing a good job if you tell other people when they are doing a good job.”That’s the privilege we often have in chaplaincy. As St Paul put it, “Encourage one another.”