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Nurturing the Living

The Army chaplain shortage is less about low numbers than about redefining what chaplains are for.

The Army chaplaincy, which is going through a much-publicized shortage, has actually grown, not shrunk, over the last decade.

The shortage began in 1998 as the direct result of a reversal in peacetime policy, says Lt. Col. Randall Dolinger, a spokesman for the Army Chief of Chaplains Office. The Army, as usual during peacetime, had quietly reduced the number of active-duty chaplains during the 1990's. Following the 1997 scandal at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where twelve instructors were charged with sexual misconduct, there was an outcry for the proportions of chaplains to troops to be raised again.

Chaplains are in the Army "to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead" and to make sure each soldier has the opportunity to worship as he or she wants. Now, they have taken on a new role as a force to make the abuse of power seen at Aberdeen less likely. In response, the Army invited reserve chaplains back into active duty and began to recruit.

For the army chaplaincy, the shortage has eased a bit with the latest round of recruits. As of May, 452 of 3000 chaplain positions remained open, down from 580 open positions in March.

The tactic is working, says Dolinger, citing the reduction of Aberdeen-like incidents.

Now, the problem is filling the guard and reserve positions, which do not require a full-time commitment but may actually be more inconvenient. "The church doesn't really support the person for leaving once a month and then for a year," Dolinger said. He hasn't seen many firings, but says most ministers feel the need to leave their local church within a year of service as a chaplain.

Dolinger points out that trends affecting clergy in general—such as an aging population and increasing numbers of students who are studying for ministry but not for the pastorate—are reducing the number of religious workers eligible for chaplaincy. Some institutions have tailored programs to match requirements for a chaplain, but since the Army reduced the required hours, Dolinger says, "we kind of semi-regret what we did. We weren't trying to get institutions to lower their standards."

The faith traditions of troops are proportionately represented in the chaplaincy—with the exception of underserved Roman Catholics, according to Dolinger.

The shortage, while it doesn't represent a loss in numbers, does represent a need. Chaplains are volunteering for multiple deployments and caring for increasingly strained military families.

Church and parachurch leaders recognize that chaplains are taking most of the strain of ministering to troops during a time of war, by volunteering for multiple deployments and going to combat zones, where civilian ministries can't.

The needs of individual soldiers may be greater because of the nature of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, says Gary Sanders, president of the Military Missions Network. "There are more people now, percentage-wise, who are pulling the trigger than did in the past."

"Though I'm inside the fence to a degree, I'm not wearing a green uniform," says Jeff Campbell of Malachi Ministries, who described his decision not to pursue a chaplain position as "personality driven." "The military is a duty-and-honor culture, and I highly respect people who are willing to serve in the military. Chaplains are working long, hard hours giving themselves to the troops and to the families of those troops. They're doing their best to represent God and help people."

Related Elsewhere:

"Not Just Chaplains," about parachurch ministries to the military, accompanies this article.

The US army provides more information about its chaplain corps on its website.

Ministering to Military Families blog has postings about church, parachurch, and chaplain ministry to the military, as well as more links to organizations that are involved with military ministry.

The Military Missions Network seeks to help chaplains, churches, and other organizations coordinate their ministries to troops. They produced a guide to ministering to the military with information about military culture and the unique needs of troops and their families.

Christianity Today's special section on Christian soldiers is available online.

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