When thinking about Anglican priests serving in the military as chaplains, it’s helpful to take perspective on what a select and small group comprises this cohort. About 0.4% of the U.S. population presently serves in the entire active-duty military. Unless a congregation is near a military base, few of those worshipping in an Anglican parish might actually know someone in uniform. Even fewer would know an Anglican military chaplain.
Chances are, your church does not have an active-duty Anglican chaplain in attendance. Military chaplains make up an even smaller percentage of the force. For example, a unit of service members, as small as 300 and as large as 800, likely has only one chaplain. And military chaplains themselves are as diverse as the religious makeup of America.
Therefore, the likelihood of an active-duty Anglican military chaplain visiting your parish is quite small. However, if one of us shows up your parish has an amazing opportunity to give and receive ministry. Let me explain.
The challenging path to military chaplaincy
The path to military chaplaincy is very rigorous and thorough. In order to even be eligible for military chaplaincy, one must have a bachelor’s degree, a divinity degree, be ordained, have gained two years of full-time ministry experience after seminary, pass height and weight standards as set by the military, exhibit physical fitness, and stand out from his peers to make the cut to active duty.
I was an enlisted soldier in the 1990s. I recall asking my unit chaplain what I had to do to become a chaplain. After hearing the long list of requirements, I gave up on the idea until a year later when I learned that the pastor of my local church was himself a retired chaplain. His encouragement and mentoring were critical to my pursuing military chaplaincy.
Considering what I’ve mentioned so far, it takes a minimum of nine years to “make” a military chaplain. But that’s only the beginning!
Military chaplains are among the highest educated, best trained, and thoroughly tested (often in combat) of Anglican priests
Upon being accepted into the military, the candidate must successfully complete a basic officer course (there are three—Army, Navy, and Air Force) before being assigned to a unit. Depending on the unit, the military chaplain will require additional training (i.e., parachutist school, a school for rappelling from helicopters, or a leadership school).
Also, if the military chaplain has been in the service for a time, having the rank of Major, Lieutenant Colonel, or Colonel, you can assume they’ve had additional leadership training and likely spent time in combat. The military also provides chaplains with training and education in counseling, hospital ministry, ethics, world religions, and leadership. For example, I had the privilege of attending Duke University for a year to receive a Master of Theology. My “job” in the military that year was to go to class and graduate. Most importantly, military chaplains know what it’s like to take Christ to spiritually hurting and hungry people in the most extreme situations.
The responsibilities of military ministry
The military considers chaplains as “dual-hatted.” They have responsibilities similar to that of a parish priest but they also participate in the unit’s mission as a staff officer and are expected to contribute to the mission on par with their fellow officers.
Also keep in mind that the military chaplain’s day often begins in the dark of the morning as he participates in physical training with his unit. We are team players and enjoy participating in local congregations, but we work long days and weekends and often spend extended periods of time away from our families.
How military chaplains can benefit your church
Nonetheless, military chaplains are a connection to the local military community like no other. We nurture the souls of the military through doing baptisms and weddings. We care for the sick and wounded. We honor their sacrifices and bury their dead. We go to war with our unit and live shoulder-to-shoulder with them during combat.
Many congregations wonder what they can offer to the local military community. We can offer advice on outreach to military families as well as how to welcome and integrate military families into your congregation. We can suggest ideas on supporting military families during deployments and long separations. We can explain from our daily experiences among service members the everyday and demanding grind of military life.
Additionally, if married, our families are often among the most altruistic ministry partners you will ever meet. Spouses frequently volunteer at the military chaplain’s unit with family programs and at chapels. My wife has served on Family Readiness Groups, played piano at chapel (she’s actually a trumpet player but you go with what you have), and has been a critical part of the chapel congregations I’ve served. Our four children have served as acolytes and musicians as well.
If a military chaplain comes to your parish, know that you are receiving a great asset. Here is someone who has faithfully followed the Lord into a challenging and incredibly rewarding ministry. I often describe it this way: “I am an Anglican priest living out my vocation as a military chaplain.” In this vocation, I can touch people’s lives in the most difficult of circumstances. I keep a letter that a Soldier wrote me during a tough time in Iraq. It illustrates the heart of military ministry.
Chaplain O’Lear, the prayer we said together while we talked yesterday was the first time I prayed in a really long time…I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me…I want to tell you, I forgot to thank God for you, for all you’ve done…the wisdom you’ve shared and that you’ve prayed with me and made yourself available to me…It means a lot and you really have eased my mind and given me some hope and insight.
How your church can help military chaplains
Military chaplains eagerly desire the ministry that local congregations can provide to them and their families. They often feel isolated from fellow Anglicans. If you have a military chaplain coming to your church, let him and his family benefit from your congregation and the work of the Holy Spirit in your community. In the military, things like training, staff meetings, and operations often get in the way of ministry. Assisting in local congregations reminds military chaplains that our sacred calling continues even when our time in uniform is done.
Military chaplains can also benefit from a local parish reminding them of their ethos and spiritual home. Military chaplains, along with their families, need to receive Christ’s ministry. It’s important to note that military chaplains often have responsibilities at chapels on the installation where they are assigned. Nonetheless, the military encourages them to stay connected to their church roots by participating in a local congregation.
Remember, military chaplains are fully ordained priests. Upon approval from the local bishop and parish rector, they can preach, celebrate the Eucharist, marry, baptize, and teach.
Learning through mutual service
While stationed in North Carolina for six years, I had the privilege of assisting in the Diocese of Christ Our Hope. As part of a group of six active-duty Anglican military chaplains, we provided Word and Sacrament ministry in a parish whose rector resigned, at a church plant whose rector was on vacation, and gave relief to another rector who simply needed to take a couple of Sundays as a sabbath. At my current assignment, I am able to assist in the Diocese of Quincy in a local parish with a large immigrant population. These congregations vary from low-church evangelical to high church Anglo-Catholic. A derivative of being a military chaplain is that you learn flexibility.
In participating in local congregations, the people and clergy learned from me what military chaplains do and I was able to again experience the “feel” of civilian parish ministry. Because of the diversity of experiences, these congregations challenge and stretch me with new insights. I thoroughly believe that they make me a better priest and military chaplain. I cherish the relationships I have with bishops, clergy, and congregations. They keep me rooted.
If you are interested in knowing more about military ministry or becoming a military chaplain, feel free to contact Canon O’Lear for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Anglican Chaplains website at https://www.anglicanchaplains.org/content.cfm?id=9001