Skip to main content

A Ministry of Presence

Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law

Most people in the United States today no longer live their lives under the guidance of local institutionalized religious leadership, such as rabbis, ministers, and priests; rather, liberals and conservatives alike have taken charge of their own religious or spiritual practices. This shift, along with other social and cultural changes, has opened up a perhaps surprising space for chaplains—spiritual professionals who usually work with the endorsement of a religious community but do that work away from its immediate hierarchy, ministering in a secular institution, such as a prison, the military, or an airport, to an ever-changing group of clients of widely varying faiths and beliefs.

In A Ministry of Presence, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan explores how chaplaincy works in the United States—and in particular how it sits uneasily at the intersection of law and religion, spiritual care, and government regulation. Responsible for ministering to the wandering souls of the globalized economy, the chaplain works with a clientele often unmarked by a specific religious identity, and does so on behalf of a secular institution, like a hospital. Sullivan’s examination of the sometimes heroic but often deeply ambiguous work yields fascinating insights into contemporary spiritual life, the politics of religious freedom, and the never-ending negotiation of religion’s place in American institutional life.

272 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: Public Policy

Religion: Religion and Society

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


"Thought-provoking. . . . Contemporary chaplaincy programs demonstrate that practices termed 'spiritual' are not unique to the political left or right, and chaplains from a wide variety of institutional backgrounds are grappling with how to provide this 'spiritual care.' A Ministry of Presence makes clear that this grappling has a particular history, and in so doing makes a valuable contribution to the study of American religion."

Michael Graziano | Religion in American History

"An important contribution to ongoing scholarly discussions in religious studies, American history, politics, and legal studies. . . . Sullivan has contributed much to our understanding of the many ways religion continues to influence ‘secular’ legal trajectories, and vice versa."

Religion Bulletin

“A dazzling, meticulous study of the interdependence of law and religion. . . . This book is an analytical feat of rare and beautiful complexity. No other scholarship on the topic of chaplaincies explores their legal significance with the intensity or range that Sullivan’s ‘legal anthropology of religion’ exhibits.”

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“[A] cogent, well-researched volume. . . . Recommended.”


“Excellent. . . . Highly recommended.”

Catholic Library World

“One of the most important voices in the contemporary study of law and religion, Sullivan shows how the chaplain has come to occupy a key role in the negotiation of law, politics, and religion in contemporary America.  With subtlety and erudition, Sullivan brings her reader to the illuminating realization that the chaplain is a figure that sits at the complicated confluence of church and state, an emblem not only of contemporary constitutionalism, but also of modern economic and political life in the United States.”

Benjamin L. Berger, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University

“Fantastic and provocative. Sullivan takes readers into new territory where we can consider American religion and social life from a new angle. Her strong authorial voice keeps the many moving parts together and makes A Ministry of Presence a pleasure to read.”

Courtney Bender, Columbia University

“In this elegantly written and closely argued work, Sullivan shows that chaplains of all faiths in prisons, hospitals, and the military today find themselves at the nexus of forces that aim to make them into ‘priests of the secular,’ whose role it is to insure spiritually healthy and well adjusted prisoners, patients, and soldiers—as spiritual well-being is determined by the state and circumscribed by the courts. A Ministry of Presence is essential for understanding what has become—and what is becoming—of ‘religion’ in the United States today.”

Robert Orsi, author of Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

"Winnifred Sullivan’s study is an important read, one not to be missed by anyone who wishes to understand the reality of chaplaincy in the modern world."

Calvin Theological Journal

Table of Contents

Introduction: US Law and Religion Today
One / Spiritual Governance
Two / The Chaplain
Three / Credentialing Chaplains
Four / Chaplains and the Constitution
Five / A Ministry of Presence
Appendix: Armed Forces Chaplains Board Endorsers
Selected Bibliography


American Academy of Religion: AAR Award for Excellence - Analytical-Descriptive Studies

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press