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Chaplains prepare for military service

FORT JACKSON, S.C. (BP) — Southern Baptists have a profound influence on the nation’s military chaplaincy, both in practice and development. With more than 1,400 chaplains, Southern Baptists have more endorsed chaplains serving in the U.S. military than any other denomination or faith group. Yet their influence does not only come from sheer numbers, but also from the character of the individuals who serve.

One of those individuals is Chaplain Major General Doug Carver, U.S. Army (retired), and current executive director of chaplaincy services for the North American Mission Board. NAMB is the endorsement entity for all Southern Baptist chaplains, military and civilian, a total of 3,617.

Prior to his retirement, Carver served as U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains, the top command position for chaplains. He previously served as the director of the U.S. military’s chaplaincy training center at Fort Jackson, S.C. Another Southern Baptist, Chaplain Colonel Allen Kovach, just completed his duties as training center director.

Chaplaincy training centers

Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center houses the military’s three chaplain schools: the U.S. Army Chaplaincy Center and School, the U.S. Navy Chaplaincy Center and School, and the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps College. More than 2,700 chaplains, chaplain assistants and religious program specialists train annually at the center.

“Once SBC chaplains are endorsed to a specific military branch of service, they attend the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center and become fully immersed in the institutional culture of their particular branch of service,” Carver said.

“It is truly amazing that our nation would build and resource such a training facility for military chaplains. There is none other like it in the world. It is a testimony to the heritage of our nation’s faith in God and the military’s commitment to ensure our young men and women in uniform have the opportunity to exercise their freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

“Chaplain ministry is an extension of the local church,” Carver added. “Chaplains are endorsed by the SBC but they answer the call to ministry from their local churches. They are Southern Baptist pastors in uniform.”

Carver contends that chaplains can offer much in service to the local church, particularly with their experience in preaching, evangelism, discipleship and pastoral care.

Convention endorsement

Another Southern Baptist who served at the U.S. Army chaplain training center is Chaplain Colonel Byron Simmons. Simmons was director of capabilities development and integration directorate for the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School.

“SBC endorsement is critical to Southern Baptist chaplains,” Simmons said. “It ensures that only quality, biblically based pastors are endorsed for military ministry — disciples of Jesus Christ called by God to a unique ministry, and who are equipped to live out their calling in an environment much different than the local church.”

Simmons, in his 28th year of military chaplaincy, served at the training center for two years. During that time he interacted with hundreds of chaplains and chaplain assistants.

“My most memorable experiences revolve around the ‘ah-ha’ moments chaplains have when they begin to understand the new environment they work in and how that impacts their ministry,” Simmons said. “To properly understand our ministry we must understand ourselves, the soldiers we minister to and our environment. Just as a ministry in Japan is different from a ministry in Africa, the army chaplain’s ministry is different from its civilian counterpart. This is a big stretch for some chaplains.”

Southern Baptist Chaplain David Kelley is a major in the U.S. Air Force and has been assigned to the Air Force Chaplain Corps College for the last year and a half. His responsibilities include integrating training and rapport with the Army and Navy schools.

“SBC endorsement of military chaplains is utterly important because we serve to foster the free exercise of religion for all service members,” said Kelley, a 14-year Air Force veteran. “We are not only pastors and spiritual care providers for Southern Baptist airmen, we also serve all airmen as spiritual leaders.

“I think one of the toughest challenges chaplains face is too many ministry opportunities and not enough time. There is so much to be done. It’s important that we take care of our families and guard our own walks with the Lord. Just like pastors, we must be intentional about our own spiritual development,” Kelley said.

Constitutional protections

The balance between individual spiritual integrity and fulfilling an order may be more challenging for a chaplain than almost any other member of the military. Two things help keep true dilemmas at a minimum. One, chaplains are in the military voluntarily, so they at least understand the challenge. The second is their individual religious liberty as provided by the Constitution.

“Although the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause restricts the government’s authority to endorse a specific religion, it allows the recruiting and funding of chaplains to promote and ensure the accommodation of religion for our troops,” Carver said. “The Establishment Clause allows chaplains to freely minister according to their religious tradition and within the dictates of their religious conscience.

“The two primary roles of military chaplains are to provide or perform religious services and to advise the commander on all religious matters,” Carver said. “Chaplains are not required to perform services contrary to their religious tradition or conscience. If chaplains cannot perform a religious request, they are obligated to assist the military member in finding a resource that meets their individual religious needs.”

The Armed Services Chaplaincy Training Center has been able to handle religious accommodation and many other religious or pastoral issues military chaplains face so well that it has gained an international reputation. Other countries now send their military chaplains to train at the center.

Pastoral ministry

Carver said one of the primary directives for the center is to train chaplains at all levels, from the tactical level up to the strategic leadership level, which includes supervision and mentoring.

The basic military course is 11 weeks, Carver said, although a six-month advanced course is available. Both chaplain officers and assistants are trained at the center, with an Army unit ministry team consisting of one chaplain and one chaplain assistant.

“The Army typically assigns one chaplain for every 500 to 800 soldiers, including the pastoral support for their families,” Carver said. “That’s a large congregation. One of the critical training requirements for chaplains is in the area of pastoral and family counseling. Chaplains must be prepared to walk with their troops and their loved ones through all seasons of life. Unfortunately, especially over the last decade of war, chaplains have been faced with a great deal of loss and suffering.”

Broadening roles

Societal changes are reflected in the armed services. The same is true for chaplains.

“We are seeing a trend of some chaplains entering the service as a second career,” Carver said. “Some are seasoned pastors who are called into military chaplaincy. Others are called from secular professions into military chaplaincy. For many of our young chaplains, it is the first time they encounter people of other faith groups. Chaplaincy has a way of broadening a religious leader’s worldview.”

America’s war on terror has heightened the need for chaplains who can provide wise and timely advice to their commanders in challenging combat environments.

“One new training initiative is the Center for World Religions,” Carver said. “In the last 11 years of war, our deployed troops have encountered cultures from different faith traditions. Chaplains with a keen understanding of the various world religions can help ensure their troops treat others with dignity and respect, especially when conducting military operations on foreign soil.”

Spiritual formations

Carver said another training addition at Fort Jackson is the Center for Spiritual Leadership, which helps chaplains maintain their personal spirituality.

“It is vital for our troops to have chaplains who are strong and resilient in their own personal faith, prepared to help others struggling with spiritual issues, particularly in combat settings,” Carver said.

Simmons said the biggest struggle in his assignment was “the integration of chaplain-required capabilities across the Army.”

Carver added that Simmons led “one of the most critically complex missions in the chaplaincy center.”

“[Simmons] and his team [spent] a lot of time studying the emerging military war-fighting trends and their potential effect on the ministry of chaplains in the future combat environment,” Carter said. “They must ask the hard questions like: What will military chaplaincy look like in 25 years? How do you provide religious support to troops in a virtual combat situation? How do you provide religious rites and pastoral guidance in a complex and widely arrayed combat environment? How do you effectively counsel a soldier over a computer screen?”

If history is any indication, at least one thing will be true in the future of military chaplaincy: Southern Baptist chaplains will serve a central role.
Joe Conway writes for the North American Mission Board. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE (www.sbclife.org), journal of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. To learn more about how your church can honor chaplains and other members of the military, visit namb.net/chaplaincy.

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  • Joe Conway