What the Army Family Expects from Chaplains

Over the history of the U.S. Army, the chaplain has come to have a unique place within the Army family. Chaplains are professional soldiers and religious ministry professionals. While relatively few Soldiers attend on-post chapel services, many more address their chaplains as “padre” and look to them for support. Most members of the Army family have come to expect that chaplains are there to care for them regardless of their religious affiliation.

One will not watch much television on the Armed Forces Network before the message “call your chaplain” appears. The Army expects chaplains to be able to help Soldiers coping with loneliness, the emotional wounds of war, family problems, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, gambling addictions and a host of other problems. Some members of the Army family, in fact, may erroneously believe that chaplains offer behavioral health treatment. While chaplains are not behavioral health providers, they do offer all members of the Army family supportive counseling and presence. If by nothing other than respectfully caring for a Soldier as a human being, confidentially offering a listening ear and being a stable, mature presence in the Soldier’s life, chaplains offer the Army something that no one else does.

The chaplain’s distinctive faith identity, perhaps surprisingly, establishes him or her as the “one-for-others” and the “one-for-all.” As religious leaders, good chaplains are seen as “in” the Army but not “of” the Army. The Army is not the source of their authority. Without a faith identity, the chaplain risks being seen as just another military officer, preoccupied with institutional concerns. The chaplain’s religious autonomy enables him or her to care for Soldiers and Family members beyond their instrumental value to the Army.

Chaplains are uniquely capable of exercising this influence for the entire Army family because of 1) their education and experience as religious ministry professionals; 2) their acceptance by the Army family as caring and trusted agents who represent the greater good, and 3) the specialized training they receive from their military branch.

As I see it, there is a kind of third professional identity that Army chaplains share, beyond those of religious ministry and military leadership. As chaplain professionals, the ends we seek for all our constituents are not limited to those defined by our endorsing agencies, but neither are they strictly military ends. Because we are religious ministry professionals, our understanding of the Army’s “human resources” will always transcend their instrumental value to the institution or the nation. Paradoxically, our value to the Army depends on our representing something greater than the Army.

But if the chaplains’ religious identity is essential to their value to the Army family, the members of the Army don’t necessarily want everything the chaplain is offering with regard to religion. This will seem paradoxical. Chaplains continue to lead their faith communities as they have been trained by their religious organizations, but their “deliverables” to the wider Army family include something else.

More on that tomorrow.

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