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The 16th century was a volatile age which produced changes of the largest magnitude. It was a time of change in the social, political, economic, and religious arenas of life. Arising out of this dynamic crucible was a religious sect which came to bear the title "Anabaptist." The Anabaptists attempted to recover the essential principles of the primitive church and of the literal teachings of Jesus. Two distinctive marks of the early Anabaptists surfaced. The first emphasized the basic nature of Christianity as discipleship; the second focus saw the church as a voluntary brotherhood of love and nonresistance, with nonconformity and suffering as corollary concepts. Discipleship, for the radical Anabaptist, implied the life and teaching of Jesus Christ as the basis for action. The disciple is one who follows Christ—Nachfolge Christi.

This concept of discipleship, along with the radical commitment to taking seriously the teachings found within the New Testament, inevitably led the Anabaptists to a position where they demonstrated compassion toward those who were often rejected by others. This allowed the Anabaptists, in an experiential way, to identify with those persons who were abused, mistreated, and isolated. The Anabaptists became attracted to those who today are institutionalized.

Anabaptist and Mennonite involvement in institutional settings was not, however, developed by "the pastor," but rather grew out of a commitment to compassion and to the healing of those persons who were in need. Therefore, the church viewed its involvement in institutions as a logical extension of itself in the area of helping, compassion, and responding. Involvements in the 1940s and 1950s by Mennonites in hospitals and mental health centers were both an expression of compassion and an extension of the church,s earlier institutional involvement, particularly its Russian experience.

The emergent "chaplains" and the "chaplaincy" occurred much later than the actual development of hospitals and centers themselves. When the Mennonites became involved in these institutions, they found it difficult to visualize a pastor operating in any situation other than a local congregation. The only possible exception to the local congregation was the mission field. Consequently, some of the early chaplains within Mennonite hospitals and mental health centers were, in fact, appointed by and responsible to the mission board. Rather than create chaplaincy departments, Mennonites have historically wanted to see the hospital or the center as the ministry. Oftentimes administrators of such institutions were also ordained ministers.

The 1980s have brought with them significant shifts. More and more Mennonite ministers are being trained for and employed as chaplains in hospitals, retirement centers, prisons, factories, and mental health facilities. Ordained Mennonite women clergy have more readily found positions as chaplains than as pastors of congregations. Several Mennonites have become certified supervisors of clinical pastoral education, which has opened up new employment opportunities.

In hospitals, correctional institutions, mental health centers, state mental hospitals, and factories, Mennonite chaplains are, on a day-to-day basis, living out the ministry of compassion. In so doing, however, many Mennonite chaplains find themselves employed in locations where no Mennonite congregations exist and their worshiping community is therefore often "non-Mennonite." Likewise, Mennonite chaplains have struggled to determine if they are real Mennonite pastors. To whom are they accountable? What standards should guide their practice? The Mennonite Chaplains Association has been organized as an annual gathering of individuals involved in institutional ministry. This support group remains the only official umbrella organization which provides Mennonites an opportunity for such dialogue.

Chaplaincy remains one of the church's expressions of compassion. Chaplains often find their loyalties divided between the church and the institution. There is a need for Mennonites to embrace chaplaincy and see their ministry as an extension of the church's life, not just an extension of the pastor's training.


Holst, Lawrence E., ed. Hospital Ministry: The Role of The Chaplain Today. New York, 1985.

Holst, Lawrence E., ed. Toward a Creative Chaplaincy. Springfield, IL, 1973.

Oglesby, William B., Jr. Biblical Themes for Pastoral Care. Nashville, TN, 1980.

Faber, Heije. Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospital. Philadelphia, 1971.

Waltner, Erland. "Toward an Anabaptist Theology of Chaplaincy in Health Care Institutions." Unpub. paper presented at Mennonite Health Assembly, St. Louis, March 1980.

Author(s) Ronald J Hunsicker
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Hunsicker, Ronald J. "Chaplaincy." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 10 May 2021.

APA style

Hunsicker, Ronald J. (1987). Chaplaincy. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 May 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 134. All rights reserved.

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