The Chaplains We Need

In April 2016 I took part in the “Pathways to Military Chaplaincy” consultation at Boston University.  “The purpose of this consultation,” said the advertisement, was “to assist left-of-center and progressive seminaries in preparing military chaplains for the 21st century.” Chaplains and representatives of endorsing agencies were also invited.  It was clear, though, that we were not all “left-of-center” or “progressive.”  There was at least one evangelical, one Muslim, and a Seventh-day Adventist. I raised a question about the terminology.  We were not all “left-of-center,” but we did share a common commitment

“to an expanded chaplaincy that … would better reflect the actual face of religion in the United States, better represent our democracy, and better serve the diverse needs of the men and women making up today’s military services. The initiative also takes seriously the ongoing work of examining the complex relationships between faith, just society, and the use of force.”

I’m not a theological liberal.  But I am a member of a denomination with a heritage of promoting separation of church and state, and that advocates a non-combatant position (exemplified by MOH recipient Desmond Doss, whose story was told in Mel Gibson’s film, “Hacksaw Ridge”). I share the concerns of liberals and progressives about a chaplaincy that has tended to tilt in recent years in a more conservative direction, with chaplains demanding their own rights to preach and teach how they believe, apparently less concerned about “performing or providing” for the rights of service members. I share the concerns of those who fear that some chaplains have been militarized, and have lost their prophetic voice.

Is there a place in the chaplaincy for those who would question this nation’s wars, and how it has fought them since 9-11? Is there a place in the chaplaincy for those with a commitment to celebrating diversity, and protecting religious freedom for all?

Not only is there, I believe it is essential that we recruit prospective chaplains with critical minds and passionate hearts. This has been the great need of the chaplaincy in every age.

Our consultation met last year during an election year whose outcome troubled many progressives.  Some liberal pastors questioned, “Can I serve under this administration?” That’s the same question some conservatives asked during the previous administration.

So the first thing to remember is that none of us serve as chaplains because we follow the agenda of any particular party or president.  We are there to ensure service members can exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, and to represent our endorsing agency. At any time there will be chaplains who disagree for theological and pastoral reasons with public policy. As commissioned officers, we have some constraints. Those under Title X are obliged to respect UCMJ art. 88, which prohibits “contemptuous words” against certain civilian leaders. But we can and must speak to issues and actions from the perspective of our faith tradition.

A second point. Many service members and their families today feel anxiety based on race, religion, gender, or sexuality. The chaplain must be a voice for all in the unit, especially those with no voice. I will always live by the words in the former AR 165-1 (2009), “Chaplains, in performing their duties, are expected to speak with a prophetic voice and must confront the issues of religious accommodation, the obstruction of free exercise of religion, and moral turpitude in conflict with the Army values.” The current version (2015) waters this down somewhat to say, “Chaplains, in performing their duties, are expected to speak with candor as an advocate to confront and support resolution to challenges and issues of the command”–but notice the clear use of the phrase, “as an advocate.” Chaplains will need to keep in mind that the chaplaincy exists to ensure that all service members are able to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. The military is diverse; there can be no establishment or preference of any religion.

Third, chaplains will need to be an objective source of information and analysis for the command on religious issues within the unit and in the AO–internal and external advisement. That requires broad understanding of world religions, and the ability to speak fairly about other points of view.

Fourth, chaplains will need to speak clearly on moral issues related to the Law of Land Warfare, and the illegality and immorality of torture and other war crimes.

Fifth, chaplains will need to be diligent in assisting the command in implementation of the SHARP program.  These last two points require an ability to speak truth to power, to confront people in authority who may be responsible for creating climates where evil flourishes.

Finally, chaplains will be working with service members in a more dangerous world, with ongoing harassing threats of terrorists, and strategic threats from nations with military capabilities similar to our own.  This will require flexibility and agility on the part of units and personnel.  It may well mean a continuation of frequent deployments with minimal dwell time.  This means a continuation of family and personal stress, and of visible and invisible wounds. They will need to be capable counselors who can collaborate with behavioral health resources and counsel service members of all faiths and none.

In sum, being a chaplain today means doing what we have always done: nurture the living, care for the wounded, honor the dead. It means standing in the shoes of chaplains like George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling, and John P. Washington, who stood side by side on a sinking ship, putting the needs of others first. It means honoring the memory of Kermit Johnson, James Yee, Wes Modder, and Chris Antal, who took unpopular positions that brought them into conflict with commanders and national policy. These all were faithful, and their faithfulness is an example to us all.

What sort of men and women do we need for this job?

  1.  Solid seminary preparation with an in-residence M.Div. I believe the Army and the Air Force need to follow the lead of the Navy in requiring at least 2/3 of work be done in residence.
  2. Substantive coursework in counseling, behavioral health, world religions, history, theology, preaching, and crisis intervention.
  3. Significant field experience, including CPE, internships, and minimum of two years pastoral experience, doing the full range of pastoral ministry.
  4. We should expect that National Guard and Reserve chaplains will be in full-time ministry in civilian life.
  5. Experience working with individuals of many faiths as equals.
  6. We need man and women of character and strength, compassion and care, with pastoral skills and academic ability; they need to be physically fit, personally mature, and well balanced.
  7. We need, in short, the best pastors, representing all major faiths.  If that sounds like you, call a recruiter!