[pullquote][/pullquote]The sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the nature of prisons and nursing homes and found similarities. This is stated not as an indictment of nursing homes nor a commentary on prison reform. It is, rather, a recognition that certain institutions behave similarly. Dr. Atul Gawande, in Being Mortal (2014), reflected further on this theme:
“…along with military training camps, orphanages, and mental hospitals, ‘total institutions’—[are] places largely cut off from wider society . . . Total institutions break down the barriers separating our spheres of life in specific ways that he enumerated: First, all aspects of life are conducted in the same place and under the same central authority. Second, each phase of the member’s daily activity is carried on in the immediate company of a large batch of others, all of whom are treated alike and required to do the same thing together. Third, all phases of the day’s activities are tightly scheduled, with one activity leading at a prearranged time into the next, the whole sequence of activities being imposed from above by a system of explicit formal rulings and a body of officials. Finally, the various enforced activities are brought together into a single plan purportedly designed to fulfill the official aims of the institution.”
The Chaplain freely enters this “total institution,” a subject of the Missio Dei, as a called minister of the Gospel reflecting the Savior’s identification with humanity, in order to erect the cross of Christ in the respective institutions. Most often this is accomplished not by working against the inertia of the total institution, but rather becoming one with it, yet always free to speak as a prophet into the institution, to serve humbly as a slave of Christ within the institution, and to perform or provide rites of faith on behalf of the Church for the members of the institution, and to shepherd the leaders, members, and all associated with the institution, as their pastor.
This is the context for the Chaplain and this is his holy and honorable calling. The Master of Divinity in Chaplain Ministries at Erskine Theological Seminary seeks to prepare Biblically grounded, theologically astute and pastorally reflective graduates who are called by God to leave the open systems of our society in order to humbly bring the ministries of Christ’s Church—the Rule of Faith; Word, Sacrament, and Prayer; the fellowship of the Way—to precious souls whose lives are lived out in some way within these total institutions. In this sense, the pastor or evangelist who identifies as Chaplain to these people becomes one with them and is subject to the same dynamics, limitations, and opportunities for service in the total institution as those he serves.
 Erving Goffman. Asylums; Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. [1st ed. Anchor, A277. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1961.
 Atul Gawande. Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End, 73-74.
 I have chosen to follow the editorial standards of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in capitalizing “Chaplain” in all of its usages related to this minister of the Gospel.
John McBride says
To a limited extent an American high school operates in the “total institutional” mode also!
I’ve come to know two prison chaplains very well, and they do great work within a system whose brutality is more often an unintended side product of its totality than deliberate.
If these sorts of systems derive from an old style of organization — bureaucracy — based on an industrial-age technology, we should see, and should prophetically call for, new approaches that allow greater individual treatment.
Dr. Michael Milton says
Well said, Dr. McBride.