Spring 2002
Volume 6 Number 3
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chaplains Who Serve the US Armed Forces

For God and Country  |  Section 2: Two Extremes of Love Section 3: The Demands of Ministry  |  Section 4: Two Chains of Command Section 5: A Ministry of Diversity  |  Section 6: Chaplain History  |  Section 7: Theological Boot Camp  |  Section 8: A United Vision


A Ministry of Diversity

In addition to the tensions of serving in an organization that practices the art of war and of serving both God and country, military chaplains also minister to one of the most diverse “congregations” imaginable. (Other than heaven—if God is letting everyone in—can anyone claim a more diverse “congregation” than the Armed Forces Chaplains Board?)

The official list of “faith groups” for which military personnel can claim preference is more than 200 groups long. About 63 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active duty members are either Protestant or Catholic. Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist personnel total another 1 percent. The rest either have no preference or are “other.” About 35 percent of military personnel are ethnic minorities. About 15 percent are women.

More than 2,700 active duty chaplains serve the military, 94 percent of whom are Protestant or Catholic. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has 122 active duty chaplains and a total of about 3,700 active duty military personnel.

“In my day there were three designations—Catholic, Jew, Protestant,” says Chambers, when asked what had been the biggest change in military chaplaincy in the last fifty years. “On our dog tags we had either a C, a J, or a P. We all fell into one of those designations. Even Orthodox chaplains were listed as Protestants.”

“In my last unit,” says Zust, “one guy was a Satanist, one person was Red Road (a Native American religion), and several were Wiccan, in addition to the Roman Catholics and Protestants. I’m Lutheran, Midwestern, and white, and one military congregation I served was 75 percent black and Hispanic. It was exciting to me, because the most segregated hour of the week in the nation, on Sunday, is not the most segregated in the military.”

The military, often viewed from the outside as a bastion of conservatism (and for some good reasons), has actually led the way in figuring out how to live with America’s increasing racial and religious pluralism.

“The military has really pioneered social change in America since the 1950s, especially in the areas of racial and interreligious integration,” says Charles Ryerson, PTS professor of the history of religions emeritus. “When it’s decided that the military is going to be inclusive, they actually have to do it. They’re forced to work out what that really means.”

Two soldiers at a field worship service led be Jeff  Zust at Fort Bragg in North Carolina

All the chaplains I spoke with counted the diversity of the people they serve as both one of the greatest challenges and one of the most rewarding privileges of their ministries.

Realizing the sensitive nature of religious ministry in such a diverse community, the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF)—a nonprofit umbrella group that “allows systematic and ongoing dialogue among the various religious bodies and between the religious bodies and the Department of Defense”—has produced “The Covenant and The Code of Ethics for Chaplains of the Armed Forces.” The NCMAF represents every faith group in the military. Its covenant for military chaplains includes the promise, “I [as a military chaplain] will not proselytize from other religious bodies, but I retain the right to evangelize those who are nonaffiliated.”

NCMAF’s literature also says, “Chaplaincy has always been characterized by a common commitment to cooperation without compromise…. [Chaplains] are never asked to violate their religious convictions, nor do they pressure others to violate their convictions. They are expected to remain sensitive to the personal, moral, and spiritual needs of all people for whom they have responsibility.”


For God and Country  |  Section 2: Two Extremes of Love Section 3: The Demands of Ministry  |  Section 4: Two Chains of Command Section 5: A Ministry of Diversity  |  Section 6: Chaplain History  |  Section 7: Theological Boot Camp  |  Section 8: A United Vision

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