Making a Case for Military Chaplaincy

Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own based on my experiences in Navy Chaplaincy School, and do not represent official stances of the DoD, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.

It’s important I say that before I go forward – because I care deeply about chaplaincy to the sea services, and while I feel compelled to share what we do, I want to make it clear nothing I write here is official word or policy, and any contrary stance is expressed without intent or malice.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “why Navy Chaplaincy?”  I think back to my time of 8+ years of active duty, and Navy life is hard – deployments, following orders, restrictions on what you can and can’t do, fitting into a system of hierarchy in which obedience and discipline are requirements, not suggestions….and then there’s that whole profession of war thing.  Yet here I am – beck in the Navy as a chaplain.

As I’ve thought about “why Chaplaincy” I’m drawn to two things.  One has to do with ministry within an institution, and the other is personal.  That said, I want to make a case for chaplaincy in our Armed Forces, and perhaps you’ll walk away with a better understanding and appreciation for what these men and women do, and maybe even consider a call to care and minister to these awesome people!

Ministry within the Institution.  While sharing essential elements of ministry like worship leading, teaching, pastoral care, institutional ministry is different from parish ministry in a number of ways.  This is especially true within the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard (what I’ll refer to as the “sea services” from now on).  There are advantages to doing ministry within the institution: “insider” status/credibility, awareness of people’s needs, ready-made contact with non-faith affiliated, intentional culture of “unity with diversity.”

“Insider” status/credibility: As a Navy Chaplain, I am also a member of the institution as a naval officer.  That means I wear the uniform, follow the same rules of conduct, take an oath to defend the constitution and espouse the same values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.  The institution teaches me its customs and traditions and to an extent, its norms.  The institution virtually guarantees my place of status and gives me a certain degree of credibility within the institution and with its members.  Of course, this enhances with the building of good relationships founded on trust and love, but the point is that in a parish, you often come as the outsider – having to spend time figuring all this stuff out.  Even then you may never reach a degree of status and credibility as being “one of them” – a part of the community or parish at all.

Awareness of people’s needs: Let’s be honest, “who lives in their parish?”  Or, maybe a better question is, “Who lives with their parishioners?”  As a parish pastor, the answer is “no” to both of those questions.  One, I don’t want to live in an old church building, and I don’t think my wife would like it if I told her we were going to start living with folks in my congregations (and I bet they wouldn’t be too thrilled either)!  My point is: as much as we probably don’t want to admit it, our interactions are limited with our folks in the parish.  So it’s natural we aren’t truly aware of their needs fully.  And that’s ok…..I think the problem is that more often than not, everyone in the parish (pastor and parishioners) think they know and think they are aware of each other’s needs.  And that’s where the problems start (at least for me).

As a Navy Chaplain, you go to work with those you minister to every day.  You actually go spend time out in the middle of the ocean on a ship, spend time in the middle of a country on the other side of the world with them.  And because of that, you see everything – the good, the bad; their laughs, their tears; you see them save lives, you see them take them – and have to deal with the emotions that come with that.  You see them take wounds – physical, emotional, and spiritual – and you see them die from them.  And you see them wrestle with the idea of hope or joy coming out of any of that as well.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t done that as a Navy Chaplain yet.  But I’ve done it as a junior officer aboard a submarine; I’ve done it with NROTC Midshipmen and prior-enlisted sailors and marines in my office and in a university parking lot; I’ve done with on the pier while their ship sits in a dry dock all torn apart.  Trust me, when you live that close to people – unless you just go blind and deaf to it – you become fully aware of what’s going on in their lives.  You have awareness and access that takes years in the parish, if at all.

Ready-made contact with non-faith affiliated: This is the Navy’s terminology for “unbeliever” or “unchurched.”  Frankly, I like it better (much more unassuming and less biased about their notions of faith and spirituality).

Lots is being made these days about getting more people to come to church.  Some call it “bringing people to Jesus,” others call it “evangelism,” others “mission and witness.”  Hard thing is, in the parish, you often scratch your head, trying to figure out who those people are, and how to interact with them.  “Getting them in the door is half the battle”, you’ll probably hear folks in the parish say.

But in the Navy, you are contact with those people every day.  Trust me, there are lots of people in the Navy and Marine Corps that are in the category of the “non-faith affiliated.”  And while the rules are very clear we’re not there to convert, coerce, or proselytize to them, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be faithful examples that witness to the God we place our faith in.  Maybe that’s half the battle for us in the parish – doing that last part.  But in the sea services, that part is already done for ya!

Intentional Culture of unity with diversity: Churches, in general, are not diverse cultures.  They are often singular in race, socio-economic status, values, beliefs, and virtues.  The sea services are anything but that – it’s diversity of all kinds.  And as I mentioned before, the Navy actually has written regulations that promote and protect this culture of unity with diversity.

I’m not going to criticize the church for what they are now.  The Navy as a nonreligious organization enjoys dynamics that the church doesn’t.  But what this highlights for me is that as a Navy Chaplain, there are increased opportunities to engage diversity.  It’s an opportunity to engage in that diversity, share things, and as a person grow from those experiences as we minister to these people.

Personal story.  This past week, we were watching a video on suicide awareness and prevention during training.  The video interviewed service members and family of those who committed suicide.  A number of the interviewees had “dolphins” on – the warfare insignia/pin that submariners wear.

I felt that pretty deeply when I saw that….and I thought, “Those are MY people.”  Those are people signified those I’ve served with – brothers in the silent service.  I think of all the good people I served with as a submariner and I realize, they’re the reason I’m back in the Navy as a chaplain.

And really, it’s because of all the people I’ve served with, and still have a lot of respect and love for, that I decided to be a Navy Chaplain.  And I’m excited to care for and serve with those I’ll meet in the future.  We’re a country that’s been at war for the last 13 years….and it looks like it might be lasting a bit longer.  And for all the things that come with war – a reality I truly hope one day comes to an end – I know there are sailors, marines, Coast Guard men and women, and soldiers and airmen and women who will need the care of a chaplain who can proclaim the love and grace of God to them, an incarnational presence of Christ who speaks life and hope into suffering and death.

“Why chaplaincy?”

Because it matters.




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