With my Friend Fr Jose Bautista at Habbaniyah Iraq 2007
“A free theologian works in communication with other theologians…He waits for them and asks them to wait for him. Our sadly lacking yet indispensable theological co-operation depends directly or indirectly on whether or not we are willing to wait for one another, perhaps lamenting, yet smiling with tears in our eyes.” ― Karl Barth, The Humanity of God
This is fifth part of 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. This is the fifth 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. As I wrote this tonight I thought of one more installment so I expect soon that I will write it, but not tonight. The first three parts are linked here:
Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One
Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart
Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance
Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part IV: The Minefields of the Flesh, Sex, Alcohol and Money
Letter to A New Military Chaplain Part V: Count it All Joy
Karl Barth’s words about how free theologians work in communication or community with other theologians is equally true for those men and women who serve in the secular and pluralistic ministry of the chaplaincy, particularly the military chaplaincy.
This was something that I learned early in my theological education in seminary as well as my more practical ministry lessons at the Army Chaplain School and during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency.
Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course with LTC Rich Whaley (C) and CPT Bill Blackie (L)
Collegiality and relationships cannot be over-valued. In fact they are vital if we are to care for the people that are entrusted to us, men and women who volunteer to serve our nation in time of war and peace. Unfortunately they are probably harder to do now than they were when I first became a chaplain back in 1992. Harder but certainly not impossible.
I think part of this is due to how theological education has changed in the last 20 years. For better or worse for many people it is hard to attend seminary in residence. I did and it was painful. I would never want to do it again but it was important in my formation and I think indispensable. However many seminaries have placed much of their theological education, even the Master of Divinity online or via other distance education formats. The result is that many theological students do their seminary education isolated from collegial relationships with professors and other students. This isolation is often compounded in churches, especially mega-churches which have little use for seminary students who will leave them in order to become chaplains.
With CAPT John Kaul and LT Romeo Biala at Camp LeJeune 1999
Another issue is the fact that the Chaplain Corps of the various services are not as reflective of the religious population of the services as they used to be. Part of this is because the mainline Protestant denominations in their cultural opposition to war and in some cases the military itself stopped sending as many chaplains as they once had done. Likewise due to the continuing clergy crisis in the Roman Catholic Church that institution has seen a marked decline in number of serving chaplains. On the other side of the coin many conservative denominations and independent churches increased their numbers of chaplains. The number of Jewish chaplains has declined and there are just a smattering of Islamic or Buddhist chaplains.
While the demographics of the Chaplain Corps have changed there has also been a shift in the religious demographic of the military population have shifted the fastest growing group being the “no religious preference” demographic. Of course I have found that in many cases that “no religious preference” is not that they have no faith but that they go to church but are not terribly concerned about the denominational label. That being said there are lot more servicemen and women who are atheists, agnostics, free thinkers, Pagans, Wiccans or members of other groups traditionally overlooked.
In this setting the collegial relationships that chaplains maintain with one another irregardless of our denominational or religious traditions in order to serve and care for those men and women who volunteer to serve our country.
In my now rather lengthly career in the military as well as my time growing up as a Navy “Brat” I can say that I have been blessed by friendships and relationships with chaplains who have cared for me. Likewise I have had the chance to be there for chaplains when they needed someone to be there for them.
With Korean and American Chaplains 2001
The way this has worked has been fascinating. My best friends in Army Chaplain school when I was in an independent evangelical church were Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal Priests. One, Father Jim Bowman saved my ass when I was having a major meltdown and ripping my rank off after a near altercation with a numbskull in the Chaplain Officer Basic Course. Likewise the course director, Chaplain Rich Whaley an LDS (Mormon) Chaplain was there for me on more than one occasion and probably was the man that ensured that I was not tossed from the program. I stay in contact years later with these men.
As a Army Chaplain in the National Guard, Reserves and as a mobilized Reservist it was Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians who were there for me. As I became more seasoned and was promoted to Major and placed in supervisory billets I enjoyed good relationships with junior and senior chaplains across the denominational spectrum. Two of my enlisted assistants, one Army and one Navy both went on to become chaplains, both are much more conservative than me but stay in contact.
In the Navy due to our often very isolated duty in independent billets this is harder to do. There is a certain community that you have when you serve in the Army or as a Navy Chaplain serving with a Marine Division, or expeditionary force. However many Navy billets are stand alone billets on ships. Once again this is not impossible to do in the Navy, it is just harder.
The Chaplain Corps is a small community thus when you have good relationships with others, take the time to build friendships and care for people who are not like you there is a payback. That payback comes in the form of maintaining those relationships throughout a career. I constantly run into Navy Chaplains who I became friends with while serving in my first tour with Second Marine Division. Those guys tend to be like brothers to me and it is a good thing. Likewise some of my supervisory chaplains, men like Father John Kaul a now retired Catholic Priest and Navy Captain have been more than supervisors but mentors and friends.
As a practical matter the collegial relationships we build with other chaplains are important for a number of reasons.
First it is about caring for our people and when you have the relationships with other chaplains who are not like you you have a ready referral source. If I have a Mormon Sailor or Marine come to me I know Mormon Chaplains. If I have a Roman Catholic or Orthodox service member come to me seeking a type a Sacrament that has to come from their church I can contact people I know to help them.
In another way it is about having relationships with people who are safe to talk to and believe me this is important. I have a lot of chaplains who confide in me because they know that I am safe, that I will listen and care irrespective of any theological or even political difference. I have a number of Chaplains that I can do this with myself and it does help. There have been times where due to the isolation of my assignment or the inability to be around some of these guys that I have suffered. When I came back from Iraq and in the midst of a PTSD induced spiritual and psychological crisis I didn’t have this, in fact at that time the first person who asked me how I was doing spiritually was my first shrink. When I was able to re-connect with some of my older friends, my “go to” guys they shared similar experiences.
Now I do work hard to build these collegial relationships. They matter to me.
Collegiality and friendship are at the heart of the military chaplain ministry. Without them we become the promoters of our agenda often at the expense of those that we serve or serve alongside. Since our Constitutional reason for being in the military is to provide for the religious and spiritual needs of our people regardless of their religious affiliation and perform the rites or sacraments of our own religious traditions it is imperative that we build these collegial relationships and friendships with any chaplain that we can.