When Charn Burton gets the call to help someone in need, she answers. Whether it is a woman who is about to lose her husband, an inmate at the jail who is struggling to cope, or a mother who lost her son to suicide, Burton is there to lend an ear and offer support in the healing journeys of those she works with.
But Burton is not a licensed therapist, a life coach or even a member of a religious clergy; she is a chaplain based out of South Utah County.
For many, the term chaplain is in reference to military chaplains whose job it is to care for the spiritual well being of soldiers and their families. Burton said that when she first entertained the idea of becoming a chaplain, she too thought that it was only something that was part of the military.
“The reason I decided to become a chaplain was because when I was working for the health department, someone came up to me and said they thought it might be something I would be interested in,” Burton recalled. “I knew exactly what a chaplain was because my husband just retired a few years back after serving 38 years in the military. … When most people think of chaplains, they think of military chaplains, and I’d say a majority of the community aren’t even aware of what a chaplain is.”
Burton explained that while there are military chaplains, that this isn’t the only capacity that they serve in. She also said that there is another misconception that chaplains are affiliated with a particular religion.
“When you explain what a chaplain does, people think that we only do specific things related to religion, but that’s not true,” she said. “There are soldiers that have severe PTSD and those with family and marital relationships. We don’t deal with those types of things. We realize that that is not our lane; those are social work lanes and doctor lanes. We like to stay with those things that deal with the spiritual aspect of a person.”
So, what exactly is a chaplain exactly?
Much like a pastor, a chaplain is a certified clergy member who provides spiritual care to individuals. Unlike pastors, however, chaplains do not preach religion, or practice inside churches. Chaplains work in government roles, serve in military capacities, provide service in healthcare, in hospice care. Many even work in police departments, fire departments and prisons.
And since chaplains are ordained ministers, they can officiate weddings, funerals and even lead baptism services.
Chaplains are non-denominational, and work with individuals from a wide variety of beliefs. Burton said that she loves being able to serve people from all backgrounds.
“I want to help people on a spiritual level whatever their beliefs are,” Burton said. “It’s about loving people and I don’t want anyone to know my faith tradition because I want them to feel safe with me. I want them to know that I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not going to try to convert them to what I believe.”
“I’ve actually worked with many atheists. It can be tricky because how do I serve them spiritually if they don’t believe in a God? They are a spiritual being most definitely, but they want to be recognized for their life. They want a life review when they die. They just want you to be there with them to talk about their life. There is always a way to help soothe and comfort those with whatever is needed at the time by listening. We have no answers. We don’t go in with any agenda.”
Turning pain into healing
Burton knows firsthand what it’s like to need help from someone who was just there to listen without an agenda. In 2001, her son Jordan died by suicide at the age of 18. Burton described this time in her life as painful as she searched for connection to people and on a spiritual level.
“Suicide is what we call complicated grief,” she said. “It’s not like you can tell someone that God must have wanted them to come home – which everybody hates hearing anyway – because we wanted them here. When I lost my son to suicide I was very active in my faith tradition, and in my community. Because he took his life, people quit coming to my home because that’s where he died. They would avoid me at grocery stores because they didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t that they were being rude, they were just uncomfortable.
“People who lose someone to suicide are kind of lost. So, when someone comes to me with suicide, they know I already know that they’re going through. I help them by listening to their story, and by asking questions about the person they lost. I reassure them that the last second of their loved one’s life when they made that decision doesn’t define who they are.”
Burton said that losing her son was really what began her transition into chaplaincy.
“After my son died, I got involved in suicide awareness and started a support group that I’ve held for 17 years,” Burton said. “I wanted to work with at-risk youth like my son was. I sat on the board of the Hope Suicide Task Force. I did everything I could do. I was already chapling, but didn’t know it, and when it came down to it, I decided that I really wanted to learn how to do this.”
Becoming a Chaplain
Burton began chaplain school in 2007, and after 15 months, became board certified in late 2008, and currently serves as a clinical chaplain for the World Spiritual Health Organization (WSHO). She also teaches others at WSHO who would like to become chaplains.
“Our program is specifically designed as a clinical program for clinical chaplains,” she explained. “Many people who apply to come through the program are widows. Many of them have lost children and many have lost someone to suicide or lost their mother in hospice. They have a reason they are there and they want to make a difference. Many enter the program because somebody made a difference for them and they want to make a difference for somebody else.”
Burton explained that the process it takes to become a chaplain is very rigorous, but that those who go through the program will learn invaluable skills that will help others as well as themselves.
“We learn to recognize all kinds of situations. A lot of people who are dying have a lot of unresolved issues and you’re not just working with the person who is dying, you are working with the caretaker, you’re working with the entire family. The chaplain has to be able to go from being with someone who is dying, and then to a hospital to pray with a friend whose child is on life support. We learn to meet people where they’re at. … We ask them how they’re doing, and sometimes we even sit through silence. You have to respect and trust; it doesn’t just come. We teach the art of listening.
“It’s actually interesting because I’ve had many social workers come through my program and say that they were never taught these things in school. You learn how to dig deeper in a different way – especially when it starts at the soul level.”
Burton said that there is one hurdle that she and other chaplains have faced over the years, and it is being able to work with those within religious communities. She said that she reiterated that the goal of a chaplain isn’t to replace anyone’s faith or spiritual leader, but to be there for those in need.
“Many people are religious and lean on their bishop or ecclesiastical leader, and often don’t accept help from chaplains,” Burton said. “Sometimes we are there just to let people rest, and when people let us in, they are actually more often than not, very grateful that they did.
“We work with a lot of people at the end of life stage, and it’s a hard process to die,” Burton continued. “It truly is a hard process. I wish that more people would accept us knowing that we’re not trying to take the place of anybody in authority in their church, but we’re just there to help give them some rest and care.”
Burton has I’ve been a chaplain instructor for five years, and says that she hopes that people will consider working with a chaplain. She also said that those who are interested in becoming a chaplain, should look into becoming certified.
“The program that I work for is endorsed by the American Theological Association, and we teach people to work with people on a soul level.”
For more information on the program Burton teaches at, go to wshochaplaincy.org.