The Role of the Chaplain

by CH(Lt Col) David Bena, USAF

What should you expect from your chaplains?

The role of the chaplain is to meet spiritual needs. The chaplain should lead worship, counsel, teach troops, care pastorally for all, encourage ethical conduct, honor the dead, nurture the wounded, and give hope to the weary.

But how's that role fleshed out? I think you should expect a godly person who:

  • Is honest and ethical
  • Really cares about the people in the unit, willing to face opposition in order to make their lot more livable.
  • Will die with you and will not run away.
  • Will pray for and with you as you lie dying or wounded--willingly go where needed, no matter how dangerous that place may be.
  • Knows the different religious practices and beliefs of the people in your unit
  • Is an enthusiastic contributor to the mission and morale of your organization, but one who will let you know when there are problems with its mission or morale.

Those are some of the basic expectations that should be met by your chaplains. If they are not meeting those expectations, something is definitely wrong.

When I was a Marine officer in combat, the chaplains I encountered understood their value to our units. They made significant contributions to our mission and morale. We should always expect that of our chaplains.

But what are some of the unrealistic expectations placed upon chaplains?

You should not expect all your chaplains to be evangelical in the same way you are.
The military does not--and indeed cannot--recruit only evangelically-minded chaplains.

But all is not lost! I have met some liberal chaplains who have been magnificent combat chaplains, and I've met some evangelical chaplains I wouldn't give a plug nickel for. A chaplain does not have to be evangelical in order to care for your people in an exemplary manner.

You should not expect your chaplains to use the same evangelistic techniques.
Different denominations employ different ways tof sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. If your chaplains are doing things differently than you assume should be done, look deeper into their operation with an open mind. You may learn something from the Lord that you didn't know.

You should not assume that you will be assigned a Christian chaplain.
The U.S. Constitution provides for the free exercise of religion -- and not just the Christian religion. So you may have a chaplain who is not of a Christian faith group, and you have no warrant to complain if that is the case.

But whether the chaplain is Christian or not, he or she should still meet the expectations listed above, and of course must provide you with Christian worship leaders and space for worship.

You should not be surprised if your chaplains, even though devout Christians, are interested in caring for non-Christians and atheists.
You should not deter them from assisting non-Christian groups to secure worship leaders and worship space.

These chaplains are doing what the U.S. government has commissioned them to do. The chaplains, however, do not have to lead or participate in these worship services of non-Christians. If you are a commander, do not assign your chaplains to lead worship in situations incompatible with their faith perspectives.

Finally, you should not expect your chaplains to always agree with you.
They have been taught to let you know when they discern something is wrong. If you shoot the messenger, you will likely find a shortage of messengers in the future.

At the same time, you should expect your chaplains to voice their disagreement to you privately, not in the middle of a staff meeting or from the pulpit.

Adapted from the originally published articlein COMMAND magazine, Vol. 39 No. 2, Summer 1990. At that time Dave was vice commandant at The U.S. Air Force Chaplain School at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He was an Episcopal chaplain and a former Marine Corps line officer.

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