The chaplain’s congregation is a cross section of American life

Many a new military chaplain expecting a special welcome at a gathering of his fellow clergymen faces disappointment. For, although he has found the chaplaincy to be one of the finest ministries available, one that affords wonderful opportunities to reach men for Christ, he soon learns that many civilian pastors do not view it this way. Unfortunately, we chaplains are often viewed as eccentrics who abandon the ministerial brotherhood and denominational duties to roam the world on a kind of quasi-religious business. Some see us as irresponsible and devil-may-care, supported by taxes and church offerings but not doing enough to deserve either. Instead of spending our time jumping out of airplanes, camping out, sailing around the world at government expense, and flying in helicopters, they say, why not settle down to the serious business of parish work!

Chaplains should not blame their civilian brethren for their feelings, however; they simply do not understand. The common attitude was summed up by a district superintendent who said to me the first time I returned for an annual conference, “Paul, I know you’ve wanted to become a chaplain ever since you first started preaching, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why!” Well, for fellow ministers who might like to join the chaplains’ ranks and also for those who view chaplains as a ministerial version of the “beat generation,” some explanation is in order.

Chaplains are not trying to escape administrative responsibilities. They have their paper work, too. They are certainly not gaining autonomy by wriggling out from under denominational boards or bishops. Chaplains are part of the military structure of rank. At least civilian clergy don’t have to salute when they report to the bishop! Nor are chaplains seeking to avoid such pastoral duties as weddings, baptisms, funerals, or hospital calls; nearly every chaplain is called upon to perform all these. Even the responsibility for church growth is not lacking. On Easter Sunday, 1964, for instance, three Methodist chaplains at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, baptized twenty-two and took thirty-seven into the church.

No, one does not become a chaplain to avoid pastoral duties, for wherever he is and whatever unit he serves, he is first, last, and always a pastor. He may make his pastoral calls on a group of soldiers on maneuvers sitting in muddy foxholes, or he may serve communion to three hundred people in a beautiful base chapel. He may visit men in the stockade or brig or in the hospital, or call on proud parents in their home as they prepare to have their baby baptized. He may find himself working on a large post with a dozen or more other chaplains of all denominations, or he may be all alone—perhaps in a helicopter, hopping from radar site to radar site across northern Canada, perhaps at sea on an aircraft carrier. Wherever he is, he will see men, be involved with men and their problems—ill-fitting clothes, pregnant girlfriends, lack of money, homesickness, sunstroke, “hate-the-service-itis,” unfaithful wives, ill-tempered first sergeants, drunkenness, traffic tickets. He will be shown letters beginning: “Dear Tommy, I hate to tell you this, but you see, there is this boy …”; or “Dear Chaplain, My son hasn’t written me for six months …”; or “Dear Sir: I’ve changed my mind and want my Billy back home now.…” He may be asked questions about sociology, psychology, zoology, pathology, mythology, Christology, eschatology, Catholicism, Judaism, Lutheranism, Communism, politics, the theater, art, or sex.

To sum up, the business of chaplains is people. Their congregations are cross sections of life in America. In them are big-league ball players, concert musicians, and peanut vendors, from privates to generals. Among them are saints and sinners, and they all need Christ.

A large percentage of those to whom chaplains minister are in that eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old group where the Church is losing out. By the time young people reach the end of high school, they are asking a lot of questions. Many, feeling that the Church does not give answers that satisfy them, leave its fellowship, or at least its influence. For an average period of six years they wander, search, and experiment with life. And when they feel that they have found the answers, they settle down. Often they begin to understand the values of the Church and Christian fellowship, and they return. Sometimes they do not. Whatever the outcome, young men are very likely to spend some part of these searching years in the armed services. And there are a multitude of forces in and around the military community that seek to lead them further away from Christ and his Church. If there were no chaplains to help to counteract these influences, far fewer young men would return to the Church than now do.

Chaplains do have an important job, not only in ministering to the physical, mental, social, and spiritual problems of their men, but also in preparing them for their return to civilian life and their home churches. For this reason chaplains feel it vital to work as closely as possible with their fellow clergymen at home. Those in the home church have to understand the problems of a lonely G.I. in order to realize how much a church letter, a Sunday bulletin, or even just a card at Christmas means to him. Congregations must see that, although the man in the service has his chaplain, he still needs the care and concern of the shepherd at home. Churches must not abandon their servicemen. They must show them concern. And when they do so, they find their servicemen coming back to the fellowship of the Church.

Article continues below

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.