False Advertising, Indeed.

Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally asked friends and acquaintances to describe a typical chaplain. If people have any notions at all, they reference Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H—a Christian, middle-aged, celibate dude with a kindly twinkle in his blue eyes. I suspect that even in the era of the Korean War, that stereotype bore little resemblance to reality, and there can be no doubt that the Father Mulcahys of the world don’t make up the majority of the ranks of today’s chaplaincy. But the myth of the typical chaplain endures.

Being a chaplain isn’t a typical job, though. While there are federal non-discrimination laws that would bar a corporation from hiring or firing someone based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation, religious denominations are still free to ordain only those whom they deem worthy to provide pastoral care. So, depending on a person’s religious background, they may never have seen a faith professional who doesn’t conform to the mold that their denomination lays out. When these folks meet a chaplain, they may come to that interaction with a very narrowly proscribed vision of the right “man” for the job.

So what do you do when you’re not one of the Father Mulcahys of the world? At times, it’s hard to hide the fact that you don’t meet someone’s expectation of what a chaplain should be. When a female chaplain walks into a hospital room, it’s pretty obvious that she’s not, for example, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, or, say, the Pope. But what about those attributes that we can hold inside ourselves—our deeply held spiritual or political beliefs or our sexual orientations?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the dilemmas that humanist/agnostic/non-conformist and LGBTQ chaplains confront. At what point should they “out” the part of themselves that may not jive with someone’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Here’s what got me thinking. I write murder mysteries about a fictional hospital chaplain in small-town North Carolina. Mostly, the books’ reception has been positive. But a reader recently posted this flaming one-star review to Amazon.com:

This review is from: A Murder in Mount Moriah (Reverend Lindsay Harding Mystery, Book No. 1) (Kindle Edition)

The cover says “A REVEREND Lindsay Harding Mystery.” Now I have no problems with women who are called into the ministry…and…I fully recognize that ministers are fallen human beings with good and bad moments, too. But a woman of the cloth who…enthusiastically supports the gay lifestyle of her boss, who is also an ordained minister…? No. Just no. False advertising indeed.

This review was titled “False advertising!,” and I suspect this reader felt tricked because no mention is made of a gay character’s sexuality until you meet his partner (well into the book).

Should I include cautionary labels for those who don’t like the idea of a gay chaplain?!

The experience made me wonder: am I under an obligation to warn readers about the liberal/progressive content of my books, even though there is no sex whatsoever and only one brief (heterosexual) kiss? And if I am, how would I do it, short of putting a Tipper Gore-style cautionary label on my covers like “Contains a chaplain who wrestles with the nature and existence of God,” or perhaps titling the next volume, “The Liberal Murder Mystery with the Gay Chaplain in It”? And in real life, should chaplains let people see their “content,” or should they simply remain closed books?

Theoretically, this wouldn’t come up as an issue very often. Pastoral care doesn’t provide a stage for chaplains to shimmy across, displaying their personal theologies and ideologies like Vegas showgirls. And there’s a reason that chaplains don’t carry ramrods; chaplaincy isn’t an evangelical mission. However, in order to build rapport, especially in longer-term pastoral relationships, it is sometimes natural and even necessary to engage in personal conversations. Some of those in spiritual care need that sort of quid pro quo sharing in order to establish trust. The Reverend Laura Arnold, a former hospital chaplain who now serves as a United Church of Christ minister in Iowa, vividly described this dilemma in her 2012 article “Life as a Queer Chaplain” on Kim Knight’s wonderful Patheos blog. Rev. Arnold talks about that knife-edge moment that many queer chaplains experience when deciding whether to play the pronoun game when asked about their romantic relationships. Is it worth the risk of potentially rupturing a relationship with a patient? Is it worth the sometimes soul-diminishing pain of ignoring a patient’s homophobic rant or disparaging comments about non-believers, when these things go right to the heart of one’s identity?

I’m not sure there is a right answer, and in some ways all of us deal with versions of what I call The Thanksgiving Dilemma. That is, do you call Great Aunt Pearlene out for making crude, racist comments about your sister’s new Filipino boyfriend, or do you just bite your tongue, keep the peace, and pass the gravy? Rev. Laura was able to reconcile her own position by embodying, “a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven.” She said she feels privileged to be able to convey God’s love by fully inhabiting her identity.

For myself, all I can do is keep writing about my little by little my bunch of diverse, quirky, and fully human chaplains, hoping that they can crack open a tiny space in the hearts of readers. And that in that space, acceptance can take root and kindness can come into full flower.

Do you have a solution to the Thanksgiving Dilemma? Share it in the comments section!

Excerpt of the Patheos blog used with permission. Read the full text of Reverend Laura Arnold’s article on “Life as a Queer Chaplain.” 

Originally published in PlainViews September 3, 2014, Volume 11 No. 16. Reprinted with permission. 


  1. Norm Martin says:

    I am a retired chaplain/pastoral counselor. My work was in hospitals, a prison and a psych/chemical addiction unit.
    To me the Chaplain’s main role is lending a listening ear. When I took my first Clinical Pastoral Education unit, we were encouraged to simply state to the patient (after knocking on the door and given entrance): “I’m Chaplain ….. and then simply say; “Tell me about it.” We thought this was nuts but it worked. A patient might say; “Tell you about what?” I would give a shrug and say “whatever”?
    It usually worked. I soon developed my own way of carefully not setting the agenda but getting the patient to express what ever they wanted.

    A chaplain who volunteers too much about him/herself is setting the agenda. I would answer questions if appropriate. At least once, on entering a hospital room, and introducing myself, the patient peppered me with questions: “Are you saved?” “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” I simply answered “yes” for both questions, and got that out of the way. I knew where she was coming from and I knew I had faith, so I didn’t falsely say “yes”. Got that out of the way and didn’t have to discuss the theology of “blood washing”.
    Comforting the patient and also caring for staff, ministering in death situations, going on codes, and just “being a presences” is the chaplains duty in a general hospital setting. Seldom in such settings does sexual preference come up.
    You seem to refer a good bit about many homosexual chaplains. I guess I’m naive, but I’ve met very few that I know of.
    The review that accused you of false advertising is expressing his mind set and the beliefs he was taught. I don’t remember the flow of your book being harmed with the fact that the Chaplain Supervisor was gay. Now that I’ve written that, why would any future book need to any big deal out of it?
    You have done so much in your books to enlightened readers on clinical pastoral education, and chaplains as professionals (with a sense of call), not simply a preacher who couldn’t find a church. Clinical Chaplains need access to patients without restrictions other than medical precautions. Of course patient desires and wishes come first. After all these years chaplains are still having to educate and sometimes confront physicians who don’t understand the chaplains role. That might be something to consider in a future writing.


  2. kevinformal says:

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I agree that one character’s sexuality is really a minor issue in my books! The reason that I wanted to address it here is that that fact seemed to take on such outsize importance for a number of readers–they simply couldn’t get past it. If you look at my lowest reviews on Amazon, you’ll see what I mean.

    I love your idea of showing how doctors work (or don’t!) with chaplains to deliver care in hospital settings. I didn’t initially realize it when I set out to write A Death in Duck, but because Lindsay’s on vacation, there’s hardly any “chaplaining” in there! In the next book, Lindsay will be back in the hospital, which I think will allow me to explore a bit more about what chaplains actually do on a day to day basis (when they’re not escaping from kidnappers and solving crimes, of course!).


    1. Chaplain Norman Martin says:

      Thanks for your kind reply. I’m looking forward to your next book.


  3. I think you should keep ruffling those feathers!


  4. I don’t solve any crimes, but as a fairly liberal/progressive non-traditional chaplain, I’m really thankful that you’re writing about us. 🙂 A memoir of my first year of chaplaincy is being released in the spring, and I have no doubt it will ruffle a few feathers too! But that’s worth it to help people see chaplains/ministers as actual human beings, warts and all.


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