Collegiality among Army Chaplains

Army chaplains should always regard each other as colleagues, even if they do not always regard their colleagues as religious kindred or partners in ministry.

So what do I mean? For my purposes, the infallible Wikipedia’s definition of collegiality is a good place to start.

Collegiality is the relationship between colleagues. Colleagues are those explicitly united in a common purpose and respecting each other’s abilities to work toward that purpose. A colleague is an associate in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office.

Army chaplains should see themselves as colleagues united in a common purpose who respect each other’s abilities to work toward that purpose. The common purpose, however, is not advancing the practice of my own religion or religion in general, but providing for and supporting the free exercise of religion for all. That’s the reason the chaplaincy exists. As a part of the application process, every prospective Army chaplain signs a statement that affirms.

While remaining faithful to my denominational beliefs and practices, I understand that, as a chaplain, I must be sensitive to religious pluralism and will provide for the free exercise of religion by military personnel, their families, and other authorized personnel served by the Army.

Certainly, all chaplains enter the Army with a mandate from their endorsers. My purpose for serving as ordained elder in the Army includes preaching the word, administering the sacraments, offering worship and prayer, teaching the faith and making disciples – for those who want to receive the gifts I offer. I cannot equate, however, my own purpose as a Christian pastor with our common purpose as the Army chaplaincy.

Our common purpose is to serve as champions of religious freedom for all, even for those who want to keep as far away from religion as possible. Our common purpose is to nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead. Our common purpose is to facilitate each other’s religious ministry to the people who need the unique gifts each of us have to offer. Our common purpose is to provide for the needs of the human spirit for everyone in the command. Our common purpose to advise the commander on the role of religion in the lives of the organization’s members and in the area of operations. The Army chaplaincy is not a church or a religious institution. Rather, it exists to serve the needs of the Army, to care for its people in one very important aspect of their lives.

Every Army chaplain is my colleague: Southern Baptists, Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jews, Unitarian-Universalists, and all the others. Men and women. Liberals and conservatives. Calvinists and Arminians. Baby-baptizing sprinklers and believer-baptizing immersers. Wine drinkers and teetotalers. There is no common religious ground, except for a belief in the inherent dignity of every human being and a commitment to the right of free exercise for all.

Collegiality among chaplain professionals may be even more important than it is in the corporate world or other professions. Chaplains not only work together, they go to the field together and they deploy for war together. They frequently live together in Army communities and serve in community chapels. Being a chaplain and a soldier is, for much of one’s career, a 24×7 way of life.

Collegiality is important for many reasons. Chaplains teach each other the tricks of the trade, not only how to get things done but how to flourish in a military environment. They help each other think through the difficult situations they sometimes face. They support and encourage each other when the burden of caring grows heavy. None of this happens if chaplains don’t know, like or trust each other.

When chaplains come together – to train, to plan events, to synchronize their efforts, to allocate resources or even just to reaffirm the bonds that exist within the branch – what happens unofficially is just as significant as the items on the agenda. Chaplains drink coffee together. They eat together. They laugh together. They tell each other stories to each other that transmit the values and traditions of the chaplaincy. By their smiles, their interest in others and their positive regard for their colleagues, chaplains tell their comrades that they are part of the same team, that they are all in this together and that someone has their back.

Chaplains should never undermine the work of their colleagues. They should never publicly embarrass or shame them. They should never discriminate against them or take action against them in any way unrelated to the public, constitutional purpose of the chaplaincy. Chaplains should never pit “us” against “them” within the branch. Chaplains should never ostracize others or make them feel like they are outsiders, not a part of the team, because of their religious differences.

Collegiality among chaplains is not only essential to the internal cohesion and development of the branch, it’s also a significant factor in the branch’s service to the Army as a whole. Our constituents see how we treat each other, and that’s a factor in whether they decide to trust us or not. And when we refer constituents to other chaplains, can those referrals also be trusted? More broadly, through our collegiality (or lack thereof), are we contributing to greater cohesion in the organization, or greater divisiveness?

Collegiality is important but it’s not always easy. Strong, public conflicts about religion and morality can spill over from both the church and the state and affect the chaplaincy. My church is trying to figure out whether traditionalists and progressives can live together in the same body, and the process is filled with strong emotions on all sides. The chaplaincy, however, should not have to figure this out. Our collegiality has never been rooted in a common religious vision, but in our common purpose of providing free exercise for everyone.

Somehow, I understand that other chaplains – even other Christian chaplains – do not agree with me on the order of salvation, the work of grace, the work of the Holy Spirit, the function of the Old Testament, the qualifications for ordained ministry, the nature of the church and its sacraments, the nature of our future hope, the place of the creeds, the role of the Bible in the church, the rules for interpreting the Bible and many other important matters. And yet we are able to work together as colleagues. Can I not extend the same collegial hand to those who disagree with me on sexual ethics or marriage as I do to those who disagree with me about the blessed sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is received only after a heavenly and spiritual manner?

Over the years, I have seen a number of conflicts arise within and between the nation’s diverse religious groups. For the most part, even where there have been very heated arguments about religion in the general public, chaplains have not carried these fights into their collegial relationships. There are, unfortunately, a few exceptions to every good rule.

As the nation and its churches work through the culture’s ongoing shifts in religion and morality, I hope that the chaplaincy can carry on its great tradition of collegiality. That tradition is essential to the mission of the chaplain corps and represents the chaplaincy at its very best. Regardless of how things unfold in our churches or in the world, our constituents will continue to deserve the nation’s full support for their exercise of religious freedom.

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1 thought on “Collegiality among Army Chaplains”

  1. Another home run, Mitch. But this topic needs to include USAF and USN, too. There are obvious (to military practitioners) distinctives between Services, but the Army isn’t the only chaplaincy that subscribes to the principles you so eloquently discuss here. CH Hurley lists “chaplain identity” as one of his top three priorities for the Corps. I’m eager to hear how he defines this and how it relates to “pastoral identity.” I missed the SLDT. Was this discussed? Again, I believe that we need to be precise in our language; what is the ARMY chaplain’s identity? But from an institutional standpoint, if we are raising leaders (the second priority for CH Hurley) then those leaders will be developed to serve in higher echelons culminating at the strategic level where military and civilian leaders expect chaplains to provide a common capability, thus the need for this topic to be an inter-service conversation. Another reason for inter-service conversation is that ultimately this definition will be used to describe to endorsers what kind of clergy we’re looking for in the DoD and/or Army. It’s obvious that all three Services have stake in that conversation. Thanks for writing this. I’m on the verge of writing an article on this idea of “chaplain identity” and will send a draft when I get to the 70% solution. Headed to San Antonio tomorrow– and you’re not there! Blessings, Matt

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