When Emily Proctor couldn’t find a traditional church role in the community, she fulfilled a need many didn’t know existed.
Proctor, a Presbyterian minister, moved to Santa Rosa Beach in 2015 so her husband, Richard, could take the rector position at Christ the King Episcopal Church. As they started a family, now with two children, Proctor recognized a need for a ministerial role not specifically dedicated to one church, but to the entire South Walton community instead.
Proctor launched the nonprofit SoWal Community Chaplain Inc. to help people in need find community resources, minister to those with spiritual needs and connect ministries and other organizations. In this role, she also collaborates with Caring & Sharing of South Walton, an organization that provides food and assistance to the community.
In February, the SoWal Community Chaplain received its nonprofit 501(c)3 status.
“It’s so funny, on the website, I have some case study situations about why you might need a chaplain,” Proctor said. “I came up with those before I started doing it. I have seen all of those situations. It’s really confirmed everything.”
On pursuing a non-traditional ministry
I thought, “Well, maybe this is an opportunity to be open to a ministry outside the box.” With God, you have to be prepared to be surprised. I wondered if there was a non-traditional church ministry opportunity here, maybe a hospice chaplain, a hospital chaplain. What I kept noticing was how many folks worked the tourist industry — restaurants, retail — and the work was pretty low-paying and seasonal.
I grew up coming to vacation here, and I wasn’t thinking about the people who were serving us at restaurants; I was just thinking about me and my vacation. I had vacation blinders on. Then we got down here and started getting to know the people who live here year-round. I became really aware of the psychological wear and tear of being treated like an invisible person for half the year, then struggling to make ends meet the other half of the year, and how many people were one crisis away from being in trouble.
It seemed a lot of the people we knew who were working the tourist season were not particularly religious or affiliated with a church. I started to wonder, “Where do these people go when they have a crisis?” If you’re a member of a church and something goes wrong in your life, you go to your pastor. You say, “This is what’s going on.” Your pastor listens; they pray with you. They also help you figure out what your next steps are and if there are community resources within the church or outside the church that can help you get to a healthy place.
If you don’t have that, what do you do?
On why the community needs its own chaplain
The hospital provides chaplains for people’s spiritual needs, knowing when you’re in the hospital that’s a particularly vulnerable time. But, there are a lot of people having crises that don’t land them in the hospital, but they’re still really vulnerable. The other folks I was meeting constantly were people who just moved here. It kept coming up how challenging it can be to find community in this place. I think because of the geography, how everything’s spread out, and all the come-and-go with tourists and snowbirds.
Again, I thought there’s another population that probably could really use somebody who’s just there for them. I know from my experience and my husband’s experience that when you’re a full-time pastor at a church, that congregation’s pastoral, programmatic and worship needs are more than you have hours for. … The reality is your congregation’s needs take priority. I thought you really almost need somebody who doesn’t have that obligation, whose focus can be the community.
On making it happen
I kind of thought, “Oh, nice dream.” It would take years to develop the relationships and support to create something new like that. But, my husband and I were having lunch with a couple that spent their summers down here and had worshiped at Christ the King and wanted to get to know us better. They asked us, “You’ve been here a year. What do you see are the greatest ministry needs in this area? Do you have any visions or dreams for ministry in this area?”
(My husband) was like, “I don’t know. What do you think, Emily?” Out came this seed of an idea that had been brewing over the last year. It turned out that couple — the Lord works in mysterious way — managed a family foundation based out of Texas. One of things they like to give their money to is entrepreneurial start-up initiatives. … I wrote them a proposal and they came back and said, “We’d love to fund this.”
On what a day in the life of a community chaplain looks like
It’s a combination of responding to calls and emails for people who need or want to talk, or want help connecting to resources. The more the word gets out in the community, the more that will increase. Over the past year, I’ve taken a little over 60 calls. Some of that is face-to-face meetings.
The other piece is hoping to work with Caring & Sharing and other churches to help develop a poverty transformation program, so those folks who are living paycheck to paycheck, there’s a path out of that cycle for them. If we can work together to figure out how to get at some of those root causes, whether it’s financial education, job training classes, helping connect people to medical help, counseling. Usually if they’re coming for financial assistance, there are other needs there that need to be addressed.
You really need to walk with people. If they’re in a situation of poverty or struggling with addiction, it takes a long time to get in the situations we’re in, so it takes awhile to get out. So to develop a program that has a more long-term relational aspect to it, so you’re not just coming in for a one-time service, but you’re really building relationships with people in the community.
The third piece is being a liaison between the faith community and the larger community.
On why you might need a community chaplain
If you’re going through a time of struggle or transition and you need someone to talk to, to figure out next steps. You feel like you need some kind of help, but you’re not sure what kind of help. I can listen and help you figure out what your range of options are and your resources. Certainly, if you have something spiritual you’re wrestling with and you would like prayer or some spiritual counsel. Sometimes people aren’t super religious and something happens to them and they find themselves thinking, “How could God let this happen to me?” It feels like a spiritual crisis.
If they’re looking for help connecting with a church, I’m trying to get to know all the local pastors, visit the local churches. I’m trying to figure out who takes what insurances, who specializes in what, what people’s religious backgrounds are.
On why she enjoys her new role
It’s heartbreaking and also really rewarding to meet with people and hear their struggles. Even just talking to someone who comes to the conversation assuming the best about this person, seeing this person as a fellow human being, a child of God, someone who deserves to live a healthy, whole life.
I’ve helped a number of people get into therapy, just connecting with therapists. Some of these people just need someone to sit down with them and help them think through, “OK, let’s go to the Psychology Today website and look at these counselors. What is it that’s important to you?” Instead of being overwhelmed with 17 different counselors, I can ask them a few questions, then they only have two or three to look at. That’s really rewarding. If they’re OK with it, I’ll follow up with them. “How did that go? Were you able to connect with the person?”
There was one woman who needed some counseling to deal with some trauma and she couldn’t afford it. The counselor was willing to charge her a reduced rate and the church was able to pay for six sessions. There was one man that was really missing having a church home. I worked with a couple of churches to come pick him up. He tried out a couple of churches and ended up finding one he really liked. Now he has a church home. He has a pastor. He has a place of worship.