Meet the chaplains

Mandy Pilz talks to four women about their special ministry – to soldiers, students, seafarers and shoppers

I joined the army’

The Rev (Captain) Heather Rendell comes from Northern Ireland. In January 2009 she took up the challenging post of army chaplain, and is currently based in northern Germany.

I was studying at a Presbyterian theological college in Belfast when I heard about a chaplaincy taster course being offered by the British Army. I decided to do it and really had a ball, but the prospect of becoming a chaplain in the military seemed far off as I still had a lot of studying to complete.

However, I couldn’t get my experience on the taster course out of my mind and eventually applied to the Army Officers Selection Board.  This meant I had to do army officers training and take an oath of allegiance, just like any other professional who wants to join the army, but my training was tailored to chaplains, so we’re not taught how to carry or use guns.
I’m now one of seven chaplains in the 7th Armoured Brigade, and look after two units, one being the third regiment of The Royal Horse Artillery who work with large guns. My work is very similar to running a parish. I look after a garrison church, where there are not only military personnel but civilians too, and my duties vary greatly.

There’s no such thing as a typical day for me. I conduct weddings and military funerals, visit schools and psychiatric hospitals, and attend physical training sessions. I get to know the soldiers and their wives. I also go out with the guys on exercise, just being there for them as a listening ear if they need it.

Not being part of the chain of command, we’re an independent voice, so soldiers’ parents also call me when they’re concerned about their sons or daughters. It’s a lot of work, but there are also fun times, such as golf competitions!

What I find challenging is the pace of army life. There’s a lot of activity so people are often away, making it difficult to build meaningful relationships or to run courses like Alpha, because we never know if people will be there. Also trying to explain the Gospel in very simple terms when people may never have heard it before isn’t easy.

A key verse for me is 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”. I like to add, “and with a sweetie” because chaplains are known for carrying sweets. It’s a good way of getting the guys to relax and talk in what can be very harsh and dark conditions. I was on a tough exercise in Canada, and at the end one soldier said, “You have no idea how much it meant to me when I saw you bringing round the sweets”.

So why do I do it? My aim is to bring light and salt into the darkness that I see around me. The work can be heartbreaking at times, but I want to fulfil the calling I have to be a minister for the Gospel, and at the end of the day, I really love my job.

‘I know what it’s like to be an outsider’

Fiona Barnard is an honorary chaplain at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Her work focuses on international students and brings her into contact with people whose beliefs are very different to her own.

I’m a former student of the university and stayed on in St Andrews because it’s such a great place to be!  I first worked for the Baptist church here and then went away to do a Bachelor of Divinity degree, before returning and taking up the chaplaincy work, alongside teaching English to foreigners.

I got into this work because I was known to the chaplaincy, but also because I’d grown up in Brazil and knew what it felt like to be an outsider. As a student I was part of the Christian Union and in those days chaplaincy was looked upon with distrust, as it wasn’t seen as very evangelical.  Now as a chaplain, I welcome the opportunity to meet people where they are, regardless of their religion or beliefs, whilst at the same time being clear about where I stand as a Christian.

I’ve been at the chaplaincy for 13 years now.  My work involves telling people about Jesus, facilitating discipleship and encouraging mission. I’m also available for students and researchers to come and chat to if they have concerns or need advice.

University is all about ideas and discovering new things, and international students, in particular, are often very open to discuss matters of faith, so I help to run Bible studies where we look at who Jesus is. We put on social events and try to involve people in the Christian Union, who are the same age as the students.  I’m also a staff member of ‘Friends International’, where it’s my job to equip Christian students and local churches to reach out to internationals, who form a large part of the university body. 

What I find challenging is thinking through the contextualisation of Christianity, so that students can live out their faith in their own cultures. The Bible was written in a Middle Eastern context, we present it to them in a British context, and then they go home to Asia and elsewhere!

I was recently away for three months in the Far East visiting former students and noticed that some who had responded positively to Christianity here were no longer continuing in their faith. The pressures of family, long working hours, ancestor worship and not linking up with other Christians made it difficult for them to continue. So I’ve come back wondering how we can better prepare students to return.

What does the Gospel look like in the Middle East, in Scotland, in Japan?  Even though we are using simple language, it may be complex to them. For some of these students the word ‘prayer’ means an impersonal transaction which only takes place in a temple where you pay money and pray to the God of relationships or success etc.

Jesus’ famous last words were: “Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples”. The exciting thing is that he has brought the world here to St Andrews for a brief, yet significant time.  My prayer is,  “Lord, help us to find the people for whom you are looking.”  And he does!

‘I was fascinated by the work of port chaplains’

Former solicitor Anne McLaren lives with her family in Lincolnshire and works as a port chaplain for Apostleship Of The Sea (ATS), based at the King George Dock in Hull, where she ministers to seafarers from around the world.

I used to work as a partner in my own law firm but, as my children grew older, I began to look for a change in direction and for a ministry where I could use my life skills and experiences to help others. I was unsure what direction it should take until someone came to our parish to talk about the work of Apostleship Of The Sea. I was fascinated, so volunteered to help out and started doing a chaplaincy course at Ushaw College in Durham. I then saw a vacancy for a port chaplain –  and got the job!

ATS is the official maritime welfare agency of the Catholic Church in Great Britain. It’s greatly needed because the life of the seafarer can be dangerous and lonely; they spend many months away from home separated from their families. ATS provides spiritual and pastoral care to all seafarers. We deploy chaplains and ship visitors in ports up and down the country to welcome them to our shores and offer welfare services and advice, practical help, care and friendship.

My job is to make contact with the seafarers who come in to dock. I plan my day by looking at the register of ships at berth, don my high-visibility vest and hard hat, and go aboard the vessels, which are usually huge cargo or container ships. I introduce myself to the ‘watch’ before meeting the seafarers, most of whom come from the Far East and Europe.

I tell them about the facilities available at the ecumenical Hull Seafarers Centre, where they can obtain SIM and telephone cards, and where there is 24 hour access to telephones and the Internet, so they can contact their families.

The kind of assistance I give varies a great deal and depends on what the needs are. It can be anything from giving lifts to the supermarket to offering to pray with them, if that is what they want. If they wish to celebrate mass, I ask the Diocesan Port Chaplain to come on board to do that. I’m also learning Russian to better relate to the large numbers of Russian and Ukrainian seafarers we get.

No two days are the same in my ministry and that is part of the challenge of the work. On occasions it can be emotionally tiring and it is always an effort to maintain the balance between ministry and family life, but I have a great support network

I find a great deal of satisfaction in the work because it’s a very hands-on approach to ministry. It’s great to see the men’s faces light up when they talk with their wives and children, who they’re often desperate to make contact with. I often think of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s prayer Take a long view, which says we can’t do everything, but we can do something. That’s how I see my job, doing lots of little things to help make a difference to these men’s lives.

‘I spend my time popping in and out of the shops’

Mother-of-four, Wendy Roberts, attends Dartford Community Church and works part-time on the chaplaincy team in Europe’s fourth largest retail area, Bluewater, in Kent, but it was with some trepidation that she first went into the work.

I’d just returned from a year in Spain with my family and was wondering what to get my teeth into. I’d never thought of doing chaplaincy work and certainly had no idea such a thing existed at Bluewater even though, having four daughters, I’d spent quite a lot of time there! But when my church elder approached me to ask whether I’d like to join the Bluewater chaplaincy team, I decided to give it a go. I did wonder though whether I could do it because I didn’t see myself as a very confident person.

Now I join the team every Wednesday, when we meet together for prayer and fellowship, before going out to our respective areas. I’m responsible for the nursery and Thames Walk, and spend my time popping in and out of the shops to chat with staff and offer friendship and support.

I’ve been doing this for four years now and have built a number of good friendships over that time, so we might even go out for coffee together. Some people confide in me about particular problems or concerns they have. If the issues are about work, it’s helpful for them to have someone who is independent to talk to. I’m always impartial and just provide a listening ear or maybe give advice if it’s asked for.

They know that I’m a Christian and work as part of the chaplaincy team, and they seem to welcome my presence, but I don’t see my role as being to evangelise people so much as to befriend them. People do sometimes ask me about my beliefs, or about the church I go to, so I answer their questions, but it’s not something I ever impose on people.

A lot of the time our conversations are not about bigger-picture philosophical or spiritual concerns so much as about practical everyday issues that people are dealing with. Financial problems are common, as are family problems such as marriage breakdown or depression, bereavement and work pressures. Equally though, there are staff who don’t have those kinds of concerns and just want a chat, so I just leave it at that.

I do meet people of varying beliefs but it’s never an issue between us. They have some idea of who and what I represent, but we respect each other’s beliefs and are able to still relate on an everyday level without getting into theological debate. As with anyone else, my aim is to befriend and support them regardless of where they might be coming from.

My main job is working as a pre-school assistant, so it’s a challenge to fit in the chaplaincy work, but the hours are flexible. The initial introduction to the work and getting those opening conversations was quite daunting. Even now I sometimes feel a bit apprehensive having to initiate things, but so far I haven’t had any bad experiences. No one has ever rebuffed me because I’m from the chaplaincy, so all in all it’s a very positive experience.