Love Your Chaplain

Posted in: Chaplains

Chaplain? Father Mulcahy!

For many, the only chaplain they’ve seen is Father Mulcahy on the TV show M.A.S.H. A kind-hearted, wise and faithful priest, he was a key supporting character. In watching all the episodes that feature the father, you begin to get a sense of the breadth of duties he was responsible for. But in general he seemed to be just a background character. Is that what we think of chaplains today? Let’s think again.

Over the years, we’ve worshiped at several Air Force chapels.  We’ve noticed that many folks are unaware of the challenges chaplains endure and are often unwilling to assist in ministry and are unconcerned about how the chaplains are doing personally.  As these dedicated men and women minister to us, we must do a better job caring for them.

The demands on our chaplains are quite different from those of civilian pastors.  Their responsibilities vary depending on their branch of the armed forces, but they have one thing in common:

A lot is expected of them.

In some branches, chaplains minister to one of two groups.  Some work among the troops in operational units, and others serve the post chapel community.  In other branches, chaplains split their time between ministry in units and at the chapel.  In both cases, the chaplains provide spiritual care for hundreds, if not thousands of people, graciously regarding their various systems of faith – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc.

Their ministry may appear in many ways to be very similar to what they did in their civilian churches.  But we don’t have to dig very deeply to discover a number of duties that are unique to the military.

Like those in other military specialties, chaplains are called on to deploy periodically.  They may be assigned to combat zones or serve troops who are enjoying a week of R&R.  Wherever they deploy, they’re subject to the same stresses that others experience.  In fact, they often help others cope with the challenges of separation from loved ones but have no one to turn to when they face the loneliness of separation. They comfort those dealing with grief from loss in combat, yet have no one to comfort them for the same losses.

In a squeeze

Awhile back I dropped in to visit a chaplain, who explained he was in the midst of computer-based preparation for an upcoming deployment.  Training time at their home station and elsewhere reduces the time our chaplains would prefer to spend in ministry.  So, too, do requirements to offer prayers at non-religious events, complete mounds of paperwork to keep the military bureaucracy functioning, and attend meetings across the installation that often have little to do with their spiritual duties.

Chaplains also conduct counseling that doesn’t address spiritual issues.  A chaplain in Europe once told me he’d spoken with several couples as military members tried to send their families back to the States months earlier than scheduled.  In most cases, they explained they did not want religious counseling; they were only there because it was on the checklist for the early return of dependents.

Across the military branches, chapel budgets and the number of chaplains continue to decrease.  And in the current climate of political calls to dramatically scale back or eliminate religious programs in the armed forces, leaders at bases and higher headquarters aren’t always as supportive of chapel activities as they used to be.

Considering everything required of them, very few chaplains will spend as much time in ministry as they might have anticipated.  Fortunately for them, we can help ease the burden. In the next article, we will look at ways you can do that.

Something to think about:

Do you have any idea what your chaplain considers to be the greatest challenges in serving the military community?
How might a greater awareness of the many demands on your chaplain’s time affect your relationship with him or her?
How have you been able to get to know your chaplain personally?