Military and government chaplains representing four denominations met last week at the Montreat (N.C.) Conference Center for their annual credentialing and training course. The second of two annual offerings of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel (PCCMP), the gathering brought 35 chaplains and their families together for a time of learning, daily worship, connection and refreshment. A total of 150 chaplains attended either this or the event held earlier this year in Zephyr Point (Cal.) Presbyterian Conference Center.
PCCMP is the training and endorsement arm for all Presbyterian government chaplains. The Rev. Dr. Larry Greenslit (U.S. Navy, retired), PCCMP director, says nearly 200 of the 220 chaplains they endorse are PC(USA) teaching elders. The remainder are chaplains from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, and the Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad. In addition to military chaplains, PCCMP works with those serving in prison and Veterans Administration chaplaincy.
The week’s training focused on sermon development and hermeneutics, a challenging topic for chaplains charged with serving the many faith groups represented in their settings. Workshops were led by the Rev. Dr. Angela Dienhart Hancock, associate professor of homiletics and worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Trent Hancock, himself a former military chaplain, provided practical advice for sermon writers and offered a critique of a sermon from each chaplain.
A track for chaplains’ spouses allowed for time of connection and discussion of the challenges of chaplaincy and military life. Children’s programming was offered as well as family social times.
The Rev. Dr. Don Wilson (U.S. Air Force, retired), PCCMP associate director, explained the extended role the organization plays in the endorsement process as four chaplain candidates met with the PCCMP endorsement committee during the retreat.
“Many chaplains come to us with a clear sense of call,” he said. “Others are seeking advice and mentoring—that’s somewhat new for us. But we are there to walk with candidates and chaplains through those decisions and to make sure they have the support they need throughout their careers.”
“A large number of chaplains serve by themselves, perhaps on a ship, perhaps on a small naval base or army post,” Greenslit said of the sometimes isolated nature of federal chaplaincy. “So to come here and to have time with their families, if their family was able to come, and to have time with other Prebyterian chaplains—it reminds them of where they come from. We’re all Presbyterian teaching elders, we’re all clergy and we’re all chaplains, so we have a lot of things in common.”
Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben, head of Navy chaplains and a PC(USA) teaching elder, visited the gathering Monday and Tuesday to bring greetings and challenges as the senior ranking chaplain for the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
“Are we in danger of losing the chaplaincy?” she asked, addressing the changing role of federal chaplains. “That depends on us. We need to be able to better articulate our value. We need to find ways to say that when I spent time with someone, it mattered.”
Kibben said communication is key to chaplains’ effectiveness, as very few newly enlisted and commissioned service members have a strong faith tradition or a language to express faith. Although fewer people are seeking out the spiritual advice of chaplains, she says the other activities of chaplains are providing necessary services to military members and their families.
“We may get asked by our command officers, ‘How many suicides have you prevented?’” she expounded. “We may not be able to answer that question directly, but we can show that the number of domestic violence acts have decreased because of our pinpoint focus on marriage and families.”
“We need to learn to articulate a language that shows our value,” Kibben continued. “[We are] there when it matters, where it matters, with what matters for those we serve.”
Greenslit addressed the group following worship Monday evening, encouraging chaplains to work to stay connected to their home congregations, their presbytery and their respective national denominations.
“I would like the PCCMP to ‘hug’ our denominations,” he said. “I believe it is the right thing to do.”
Along with individual chaplains working to maintain these connections, Greenslit believes the PCCMP needs to evolve so it can better serve chaplains. Partly driven by a $70,000 deficit in its operating budget, he said the evolution may involve splitting the endorsement and training functions of the PCCMP, and possibly moving its endorsement work to the PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville.
“I could see a move to Louisville,” he said. “I see great benefit with us having closer relations with the church. There’s a great benefit to their knowing what their federal chaplains are doing and to our being involved in the life of the church.”
Greenslit proposed the formation of a new association, similar to the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, to take on training, retreats and continuing education of government chaplains. The endorsing functions required by the branches of military and government offices would continue to function as an office of the Stated Clerk.
“We are there in those crisis moments of life, perhaps when no one else is,” said Greenslit of the role chaplains have in meeting needs, especially for young adults who are away from home and have nowhere to turn. “Chaplains have a unique opportunity to be right there when that young person is going through something they’ve never dealt with before.”