Military chaplains are the same as any church pastor, except that their congregations wear uniforms, right? In some ways, this is true.
Chaplains attend seminary and perform worship services, weddings, baptisms and funerals. They minister to congregants in need. It’s not so much what the chaplains do that makes them different — it’s how they do it.
At the Aug. 4-7 Presbyterians Caring for Chaplains and Military Personnel training conference here, many of the chaplains were happy to talk about what they do and the unique circumstances in which they work.
“Chaplains want their story to go out to the larger church. They feel like many don’t know what they really do,” said the Rev. Robert Ward, an Army chaplain.
The Rev. Flo Watkins has a unique perspective as an Air Guard chaplain in North Carolina. She has her chaplain duties with her unit while on duty but also has a connection with the civilian world as pastor of Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C.
She agrees with the opinion that the wider church deserves to see more of what chaplains really do. She runs into curiosity from members of her civilian church who ask about her work as a military chaplain. She once took her choir along to her unit to help out with worship so they could see for themselves some of her military work.
Chaplains working on bases might have chapels, but those working in the field have to make do with whatever they have. Naval chaplain Timothy Lantz has used the ship’s library for services but also enjoys holding an open-air service on the forecastle deck of the ship. He can fit up to 100 people in this large open space on the bow.
“It’s not always ideal if they’re launching jets and you have jet noise,” Lantz said.
Army chaplain Brenson Bishop has held many services in Quonset huts. He recalled one in particular where the hut had inches of dust in the rafters. Training exercises going on outside involved large guns, and Benson noted every time a shell hit outside, dust would filter down from the rafters.
“The irony of standing there praying for peace and understanding while there were guns going off outside was not lost on me,” he said.
That internal conflict was a subject brought up by a number of the chaplains during morning workshops focusing on self-care. It’s a question they ask themselves but also field from others who don’t understand how Presbyterian ministers can talk of peace and understanding while ministering to soldiers with the intent of keeping them spiritually and mentally well so they can complete their mission — which might ultimately be to kill the enemy.
“Sometimes they don’t agree with it. How can you be a chaplain, how can you be a minister serving in an institution of war?” said Air Force chaplain Bruce Glover. “We are not hawks, but there are some people, live human beings, that need some pastoral care.”
This counseling role has increased in scope and become vital during the past 13 years as American soldiers and sailors have faced combat situations in the Middle East and Asia. It’s changed somewhat the role, and the importance, of chaplains.
“It used to be that we were expected to do worship services and show up every now and then to boost morale. Now commanders rely on us. They demand to have us,” Ward said. “They need us because the soldiers need us as much as they need their weapons to keep going and do what they do.”
Military chaplains also have a unique dynamic with the soldiers they serve.
“I have a closer relationship with the soldiers than most pastors have with their congregations,” said Ward, crediting the sheer amount of time he spends with them for that relationship. “I sleep, shave and shower right beside them.”
But the military still has some boundaries. Chaplains are officers, and while they do live in close quarters with and develop bonds with their soldiers, rank still applies. It’s a delicate balance to create a bond and trust and still maintain a professional relationship.
Military chaplains also have to be tolerant of others’ faiths and belief systems, perhaps more so than their civilian counterparts, because the soldiers are not conveniently grouped by faith. Chaplains have to minister to soldiers of all faiths and of all lifestyles, even if those lifestyles don’t mesh with their own.
Given all the challenges of military chaplaincy and the additional challenges that come from military life in general, it speaks to the character of those who pursue the ministry that they have such passion for what they do.
“If I don’t do this, who else will? Some days are good, some days are not, but in the end they balance,” Ward said.
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.