Note: This is a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. It will be the first of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy.
“Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” Francis of Assisi
I thank you for writing me about the questions that you have concerning ministry as a Navy Chaplain. They are incredibly good questions and I since you first asked me two days ago I have given them much thought before responding. I find that if I take the time to mull over such questions it is much more beneficial than simply spitting out whatever comes to mind first because if I don’t get the questions right my advice however good might be wrong. Of course even well thought out advice can be wrong in a given circumstance so you must contextualize the advice and adapt it to your own circumstances at any given time.
As a prologue to the actual questions that you ask I want to point you back to the words of St Francis. I think that they are they key to success in any ministry, but especially the chaplaincy.
As chaplains we are called by our churches or religious bodies to serve in an organization that is essentially secular. Our ordinations come from our churches or religious bodies and we are to be faithful to them. However our commissions as officers come from the President and this creates a dialectical tension that is hard to resolve for some. You will hear people talk about managing the “right and left side of our collars.” That of course is the fact that we wear our military rank on the right collar and the Cross that we wear as Christians or in the case of our Jewish, Islamic or Buddhist colleagues the Tablets of David, the Crescent or the Wheel of Life on the left.
Some attempt to seek a balance between the rank and the religious symbol. That is a bad model because but what typically happens is that chaplains become fall to one side or the other. By that I mean that they either place the military side higher and forget their call or minimize the military side and find that they have no voice in the system. I have seen many chaplains who have in their attempt to fit in with the military forgotten their call as ministers. On the other hand I have seen a number place such an emphasis on their own religious traditions and their perceived rights as ministers that they neglect the vast majority of the people that they are assigned to care for as chaplains. Both options are bad because ultimately we fail to serve those that we are called and given the privilege to serve.
A few years back I saw the travesty of trying to “balance” the two sides of the collar. From my observation those who tried this always end up becoming so military that they end up losing their faith distinctions or they never adapt to the military and even if they do “good ministry” they end up frustrated, are seen as an outsiders and have relatively short careers.
As such I went back to Christian theology to find a model of ministry and that is in the hypostatic union of Jesus the Christ. By our understanding as Christians Jesus is both fully God and fully Human, not half and half, or any other percentage, but 100% God and 100% human. The fact is that as Navy Chaplains we are 100% ministers of our own faith group and 100% Naval Officer. As such we need to be the best we can at both and cannot allow ourselves to settle for anything less. If we attempt to “balance” we will fail in being ministers or being officers.
The military is not the church, as such In the United States our service in such a capacity is not a right, it is a privilege. The right is not ours, it is right of the people that we serve to have the Constitutional right under the First Amendment to their “Free Exercise” of religion. As chaplains we facilitate the religious rights and freedoms of those who wear the same uniform that we wear, whether they of our faith, another faith or even of no faith. This is not about being “politically correct” but rather being faithful to two callings, both of which must be valid and respected in order for us to do what we are called to do as Navy Chaplains and there is always a tension in this. If you take a look at the chaplains that have trouble it is most often because believe that their right to free exercise is greater than the people that they are called to serve or that they lack a sufficient understanding of their call as Ministers, Priests, Rabbis or Imams. That is why Francis’ words are so important.
I think that many ministers, not just chaplains have a terrible understanding of our calling and vocation. To many the ministry is simply a job, their ordination and theological education the necessary prerequisites to perform the task. It is an attitude that I noted in seminary back in the late 1980s and early 1990s and have continued to observe over time. In seminary I had fellow students tell me that they were just thier to get a more advanced degree to help them get a bigger and better paying church. I had others friends disparage their theological education. I had one friend tell me that our degree was “only good for 5 years.” Obviously he was only thinking about the “how too classes” and not the courses that are really important to theological and pastroral formation.
But such is the state of theological education in this country. The fact is that most churches, seminaries or religious bodies do a pretty bad job at pastoral formation. We do a great job on teaching people how to manage churches, direct programs, teach doctrine, evangelize, run media empires or even become social and political activists, but a terrible job at actual pastoral formation and the latter is actually the most important task. Formation is primarily about relationships and relationships are what the Gospel is all about, beginning with the relationship of God to humanity and all of creation.
That may sound like I chased the proverbial rabbit but the attitude has a decided impact on the chaplain ministry. What happens is that this simply becomes a job and “skill sets” take priority over our calling and our service to those who were are called to serve during the time that we are allowed to serve in the Navy. We must never lose sight of who we are called to be as ministers, including the vows the we took when we were ordained as well as the oath that we swore as Naval Officers.
All that being said back to your questions. You asked first about the minefields that you might encounter as a chaplain. In a sense I have described some of them, they are very often related to who we are on the inside. It is as Lao Tzu said: “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
The minefields that you asked are varied but most are related to what I have already described. They are often directly related to our own understanding of ourselves, our calling and our relationship to those that we are called to serve.
But to get into some detail on real, perceived and potential “minefields” you might encounter let me break them into several categories.
The first is the personal. As I stated before we have to know ourselves. This takes time and many people remain oblivious to who they are and what they are about, sometimes for most of their lives. Where this comes into play as a chaplain is that if we do not understand who we are and what we are about we will fail either in regard to our ministerial calling, our military vocation or our familial or ecclesiastical relationships.
The second is behavior. This is directly related to our personal behaviors and as we were told back during my early times as a new Army Chaplain. Most chaplains who self destruct tend to do so through SAM. Sex, alcohol or money. At any given time there are anywhere between half a dozen and dozen chaplains of all services serving time in Leavenworth or a regional Brig most having been convicted of charges involving SAM.
The third is professional. This is the nuts and bolts of what you will face as a Navy Chaplain. This includes your service to your crew, relationships with the chain of command and your fellow chaplains, your peers, your superiors and eventually those that you supervise as well as your Religious Programs Specialists or Chaplain Assistants. Likewise it includes your continuing relationships with your endorser and church that ordained you.
I will continue the discussion of these three areas in the next couple of days. After those topics are address I will discuss the particularities of promotion and assignments in the Chaplain Corps. Since my experience includes 17 1/2 years in the Army and 14 1/2 years in the Navy including service as a junior chaplain in both as well as service as a Field Grade Officer in the Army and now as a Senior Officer in the Navy Chaplain Corps my perspectives will be quite unique.
Thank you for your patience in reading through this as well as for asking your questions. They have forced me to think about this subject in new ways and write in down my thoughts down ways that I never have before. Yes I have set down with and discussed these ideas and concepts with various chaplains but have never written them down in a systematic format until now. I do appreciate you giving me the chance to do this. It means a lot.