The Servant Ethos of the Military Chaplain

In modern usage, the word ethos has come to describe the distinguishing character of institutions and groups. Ethos is the spirit of a people as embodied in their ideas and customs. Like the Latin term mores, it describes a society’s norms, virtues and values.

What comprises the distinctive ethos of the Army chaplaincy?

The Army chaplaincy already has the foundation of a shared ethos; it just doesn’t call it by that name. Army Regulation 165-1 (Army Chaplain Corps Activities, 3 Dec 2009) names three “principles” under which chaplains operate:

  • Nurture the Living
  • Care for the Wounded
  • Honor the Dead

Army doctrine (FM 1-05, Religious Support, October 2012) classifies these as “religious support competencies.”

When unpacked, these principles provide the philosophical foundation for a universal chaplain ethos that transcends theological and ecclesiastical differences. The principles are rooted in the dignity of every human being. We honor the dead because all human life is worthy of respect. The honor and respect that we owe the dead, we also owe the living. Therefore, we nurture the living – all of them, and not just our faith constituents – as we help them mature and grow in every dimension of their lives. We help them become, in the words of the old Army advertisement, “all they can be.”

“Nurture” is built on a foundational belief that human beings can grow stronger and wiser and not just older, that human life can become richer and human character more complete. “Nurture” has a rational component; there are life lessons that we can help Soldiers learn. But nurture also has a relational component. It requires person-to-person care and encouragement. Pastoral counseling and what we have called the “ministry of presence” are components of human nurture. We are coaches and we are cheerleaders.

We are also comforters of those who are hurt during the journey. The life of every human is of sacred worth and full of unrealized potential. Therefore, when lives are broken, we grieve with those who grieve. We comfort those who are hurting in any way, help their spirits to mend and accompany them along the way.

“Nurture,” “care” and “honor” are great words for the chaplain ethos. When pulled back from the battlefield context of “living, dying and dead,” our ethos might look something like this:

  • I will nurture every Soldier in the journey toward completeness
  • I will care for all those who are wounded in body, soul or spirit
  • I will honor the intrinsic value of every human life and respect the dignity of every human being

These principles are not rooted in any one sacred tradition, but in what many have identified as “natural law” or “common grace.”

Focusing on our ethos should have a profound impact on the way we recruit, train, develop and hold chaplains accountable. Our recruiting strategy, for example, ought not to be, “Clergy people, come on in and do your thing in our uniform.” It ought to be, “Clergy people, consider whether you want to give yourselves to the work of nurturing, caring for and respecting the dignity of all members of the Army family in accordance with the standards of the profession.” Our training and professional development ought to be built around the same model.

Rooted in Shared Army Values

The chaplain’s ethos is also rooted in the Army’s own doctrine. ADP 1 (The Army), ADRP 1 (The Army Profession), ADP 6-22 (Army Leadership) and ADRP 6-22 (Army Leadership) all discuss the warrior’s character in terms that speak to the Soldier’s humanity. Whether or not to “buy into” these virtues isn’t really open for discussion for soldiers or their chaplains. Soldiers live by Army Values, the Soldier’s Creed and the Warrior Ethos. They have empathy for their fellow human beings. They have developed belief systems that guide them and give purpose to their lives. They act ethically and morally. They possess a maturity that shows itself in sound judgment, confidence, self-control, balance and stability. They are physically, mentally and emotionally strong. They are resilient in the face of setbacks and difficulties. It is the Army’s intent that every leader come to possess these character traits.

There are dimensions to these character traits that are outside the chaplain’s area of expertise or responsibility. Overall, commanders are responsible for developing their soldiers. Still, chaplains offer the Army a unique perspective on the human dimension. By training, experience and common expectation, chaplains are uniquely suited to support the development of these traits in ways that other military leaders are not.

Rooted in Transcendent Virtues

If chaplains are to be effective leaders, Soldiers must see them living simultaneously in two worlds. Chaplains are a part of the Army family, but they serve a cause greater than the Army. A chaplain cannot be just another officer. Service members must believe that the chaplain is more than just a mouth piece for “the party line” or an instrument of Army purposes. Soldiers must believe that chaplains have the courage and independence to “speak truth to power” when the situation calls for it. Chaplains don’t just serve the cause of the command; they serve the cause of the greater good, the interests of humanity and the needs of the individuals who make up the command. The truths chaplains speak are more than Army propaganda; they have an independent truthfulness and transcendent significance that touch the human spirit. Paradoxically, then, the chaplain’s faith identity is an essential component of his or her professional identity, even for those who do not share the chaplain’s religious beliefs.

Let me here differentiate between transcendent virtues and instrumental virtues. A business may tell its workers, “Our partners treat everyone who walks through the door like a king.” Everyone understands why the business promotes this as a virtue: it helps the company make money (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Few people come home from work, however, thinking that their employers have the secret to life’s meaning or that all of life is to be lived by company virtues.

In one sense, Army virtues are company virtues. Every soldier understands that the Army wants them to be resilient, ethical, committed and confident because those traits help the Army accomplish its mission. Army values, to be sure, serve a larger and more dignified purpose than making a healthy profit. Still, everyone knows that Army leaders are under significant pressure to accomplish the mission. It serves both the Army’s larger purpose and the first sergeant’s immediate need to have Soldiers who can go on patrol, keep their head in the game and not be distracted by personal problems, family squabbles or emotional dysfunctions. Problem soldiers distract from the mission, disrupt unit cohesion and drain the command’s energy. It’s no wonder that the Army wants comprehensively fit soldiers.

Soldiers and family members have come to expect, however, that chaplains are more than just “company men.” We stand for something that transcends the Army and even the nation. We are for both “God” and “country” – but these are not equals in their authority. Chaplains unconditionally affirm the human dignity of every soldier and family member apart from their military utility.

The foundation of the chaplain profession is the commitment to honor the dignity of every human life, to care for every wounded spirit, to nurture holistic well-being in every person – not because it puts another rifle out on patrol, but just because human beings are of intrinsic value. We cultivate virtues of character not just because that solves problems for the Army, but because it is absolutely and unconditionally the right thing to do. And we do this for everyone in our care.

The Army family has come to expect that chaplains can strengthen the spirits of those whose physical bodies are hurting, those whose emotions are wounded and those whose social behavior is self-destructive. The Army has also come to expect that chaplains play a role in strengthening family life and guiding those who are looking direction. And the Army family expects that chaplains will provide this spiritual leadership regardless of religious affiliation. As spiritual leaders, chaplains are never simply just military officers. Even those who do not share the chaplain’s faith commitments look to the chaplain for a unique perspective that they won’t get from the commanders, health providers or other counselors. Chaplains serve everyone.