Glimpses of Grace Donald Stoesz
Chaplain's Role in Prison




This article builds on the work of Alan Baker, seminary professor and long-time chaplain, who has suggested that a chaplain fulfills four functions within an institution: provider, facilitator, caregiver, and advisor. Competences and job descriptions identified in previous works are used to show how these four roles are integral to chaplaincy. The unique aspects of a prison setting are noted to help chaplains understand the context of their work so that they can be effective.


Alan Baker, long time chaplaincy practitioner and instructor, has encapsulated the essence of chaplaincy in four words: provider, facilitator, caregiver, and advisor.[1] These four words take into account a variety of other competences and job descriptions that have been used to describe chaplaincy.

Chaplain as Provider

For example, an Alberta Consortium of Seminaries and Colleges has incorporated leadership and body of knowledge as competences into its understanding of what a chaplain is and does.[2] A chaplain builds on their experiences as a pastor or faith group leader to provide worship services, Bible studies, and faith formation classes to clients. Their understanding of group dynamics enables them to be effective in corporate settings in articulating the bases of their faith, spirituality, and religious practices. Their training in Bible, theology, and worship enables them to provide valuable insights and spiritual encounters to their institutional parishioners so that they can grow in their faith.

Worship and Sacraments along with Religious Education, two of five job descriptions developed by the Inter-faith Committee on Chaplaincy, provide further clarification of what a chaplain as provider does.[3] A chaplain enables their clients to encounter the Divine in formal and informal ways through a variety of religious practices and rituals. These encounters take place within the context of a Christian worship service, corporate Islamic prayers on Friday, Buddhist meditation sessions, and Jewish celebrations of Hanukkah. A chaplain provides further insight into prayers, meditation, the Bible, and faith through formation sessions.

Alan Baker’s use of the word provider is helpful because it demonstrates what a chaplain brings to their role.[4] Having been trained in specific religious institutions, chaplains use this formation to articulate their faith. Their identity within a faith-specific tradition enables them to share that knowledge, understanding, spirituality, and religious practices in an institutional setting.

Chaplain as Facilitator

A chaplain is able to facilitate religious practices and spiritual exercises different from their own because they understand how important faith and worship are to themselves.[5] Their deep identification as a spiritual and religious person enables them to be empathetic to the beliefs and practices of others. On the most basic level, religious accommodation is like exchanging one cap for another cap. The cap of chaplain as provider is replaced with a cap of facilitator. While the shape of the caps is the same, the logos on the caps are different.

This ability to become a facilitator as well as provider becomes especially important when there are no faith-specific practitioners available to offer this service to inmates of faith other than the chaplain’s. A chaplain becomes a facilitator in two respects. A chaplain provides the framework and setting for an inmate of another faith to practice -- as well as enters into an empathetic relationship with that offender in order to validate and make that ritual and set of beliefs more real.

For example, a chaplain provides the necessary ingredients for a Buddhist inmate to pray and meditate, such as a small statue of a buddha, incense, an (electronic) candle, containers to hold sacrificed foods, and perhaps a religious image. The chaplain learns more about this Buddhist inmate’s practices when they enter into a dialogue with the offender about the significance of each of these items. The Buddhist inmate along with the chaplain enter into a moment of sacred time and space when that person shares deeply about what their faith means to them.

Further empathy is possible within the context of meditation sessions for Buddhist inmates. A chaplain can enter and participate in this circle of participants who are meditating in front of a candle because the prayers of each individual are unique to that person. While a chaplain is praying to the Divine, the other participants are praying and meditating in their own way. Difference is respected even as there is a commonality of belief that meditation is important and necessary in one’s religious practices. The caps of meditative practice are similar while being different.

It is, of course, ideal for a faith specific person to be present and available to the Buddhist inmate. While a chaplain can provide rudimentary ways in which the Buddhist offender can practice, a Buddhist priest and practitioner can help the inmate grow deeper in their faith. A chaplain in this case is a facilitator for the faith specific chaplain rather than facilitating in a direct manner with the inmate. The latter, empathetic manner of facilitation by a chaplain is sometimes necessary because it is difficult to have that many different religious practitioners available for inmates.

A chaplain’s role as facilitator is identified in the core competences as diversity and self-knowledge, and in the job description as worship and sacraments and religious education.[6] Awareness of how one can accommodate inmates of other faiths while staying true to one’s own faith tradition represents the mark of an effective chaplain. A chaplain is self-aware of the limits of their spiritual role regarding inmates who practice differently while still being able and available to serve in an empathetic role as needed.  A chaplain’s understanding of the importance of their own beliefs, practices, and religion enables them to learn about and provide different aspects of faith for inmates of other religions and spiritualities.

Chaplain as Care Giver

Chaplains are spiritual care givers who enter into a therapeutic relationship with their clients.[7] Skilled at a variety of levels in terms of counselling, accompaniment, spiritual direction, and communication, chaplains provide one-to-one sessions with clients in order for participants to integrate faith and religion into their lives. This integration is especially important in a prison context. Bombarded by the dynamics of prison life, inmates find it difficult to share personally and confidentially about the many losses, sense of turmoil, trauma, and crises they are facing.

Chaplains provide a safe place where offenders feel free to share openly. Chaplains learn through structured interviews how they can be effective. They move from surface discussions of available chapel resources, inmate venting about frustrations and self-pity, crisis management of death notifications and religious accommodation requests, testimonies of faith transformation, and sessions of prayers, solitude, reflection, and study to something more basic. An inmate’s ability to share personally about all that has transpired in their lives over many years demonstrates the effectiveness of the interview process.

Clinical Pastoral Education is valuable in this context because it gives chaplains the opportunity to think more intentionally about the interviews that they conduct. Short verbatims about the dialogue that took place are shared with mentors and instructors so that the chaplain can become more effective in ministry. One hundred verbatims have been published in Glimpses of Grace[8] in order for chaplains to have an idea of what is involved as they enter into a therapeutic relationship with an offender.

Competences such as professional practice skills and self-knowledge[9] are a prerequisite for chaplains to become effective care givers. Emotional intelligence that involves knowing how one is perceived helps a chaplain understand the extent of their effectiveness. Each chaplain uses a variety of counselling skills to become successful in their pastoral encounters.  Visible presence[10] is also necessary so that chaplains know how a sense of the sacred is manifested and encountered in a variety of settings: on the units, in segregation, in the office, in the chapel, in the hospital, at work, in school.

Chaplain as Advisor

A chaplain can become an advisor on religious matters to an institution only if they have been willing to learn about the dynamics of an institution in the first place. Integration of chaplaincy into an institution is perhaps a better way of stating the matter. Integration is used as one of the five aspects of a chaplain’s job description developed by the Inter-Faith Committee on Chaplaincy.[11]

Alan Baker makes a clear distinction between parish ministry and chaplaincy in his first chapter in order for chaplains to understand the unique aspects of their work.[12] This uniqueness is especially important in prison work because of the many permissions that are necessary in order for a chaplain to enter into a prison in the first place. The closed off nature of a carceral environment makes it imperative for a chaplain to know what is going on before they proceed with their own idea of what chaplaincy entails.

The core competence of body of knowledge includes the principles of psychology and sociology as prerequisites for chaplains to become effective.[13] The Prison Chaplaincy Manual also suggests that knowledge of psychology and sociology are one of the six principles required of chaplains.[14] The Manual provides some information about prison dynamics in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth chapters.[15] Specific uses of psychology and sociology with a prison context have been detailed in a more recent manuscript.[16]

The basics of prison chaplaincy are essential to learn in order for spiritual care providers to be effective. Ministers and various faith specific representatives and practitioners come from such different walks of life that it is important to have a practical core set of competences and job descriptions in common. Chaplains are often few in number in prisons and come to their ministry with slightly different experiences and mandates than other correctional staff.  This short handbook and reference guide helps chaplains understand whether they are meant to be.


[1] Alan Baker, Foundations of Chaplaincy (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans, 2021).

[2] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2020), 50.

[3] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, Appendix 1, 225-227.

[4] Alan Baker, Foundations of Chaplaincy, 49-77.

[5] Alan Baker, Foundations of Chaplaincy, 78-100.

[6] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 50, 225-227.

[7] Alan Baker, Foundations of Chaplaincy, 101-138.

[8] Donald Stoesz, Glimpses of Grace (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2010).

[9] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 50.

[10] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 225-226.

[11] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 227.

[12] Alan Baker, Foundations of Chaplaincy, 7-48.

[13] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 50.

[14] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 21.

[15] Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual, 75-90.

[16] Donald Stoesz, Topics in Psychology and Sociology (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2024).