The Genius of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps

By Graham Glover

I have a really strange job. I get a paycheck from the United Sates Federal Government to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, you read that correctly. The American Government pays me to be a Christian clergyman.

In parts of the world such a statement is not strange at all, but here in Merica, this is not the typical way things are done.

In the United States Army however, this is exactly how things are done. And the fact that your tax dollars afford me the opportunity to be a Lutheran pastor to our nation’s Soldiers and Family Members is sheer genius. In fact, when exercised properly, I think the model of the U.S. Army Chaplain Cops is the ideal way to do ministry.

Sometimes my vocation as an Army chaplain can be confusing. I am still held to the same ordination vows as every other member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ministerium. I maintain membership in a local parish, submit quarterly reports to my District President, as well as the Ministry to the Armed Forces at our Synodical headquarters. Semi-annually I attend denominational conferences and symposiums. But on a daily basis I report to and am held accountable by my Battalion Commander, Executive Officer, and Brigade Chaplain (to say nothing of the other chaplains within the Division and on the Installation), none of whom are Lutheran, some of whom may not even be Christian. I also do a lot of things as an Army chaplain that have nothing to do with my vocation as a pastor. As theologically odd as it sounds and as practically perplexing as it seems, I am a pastor and a Soldier.

And perhaps this oddity and perplexing duality is exactly what make the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps so wonderfully ideal.

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To begin with, the Army embeds a chaplain in every one of its Units, at every echelon of command. Where Soldiers live and work, there is a chaplain. When Soldiers train, chaplains are right beside them. When Soldiers deploy, their chaplain goes with them. When Soldiers endure the rigors of doing their vocation – from PT to field exercises, staff meetings to mission analysis – they have a chaplain physically in their midst to endure much of what they experience. The ministry opportunities this proximity creates are endless.

The Chaplain Corps also properly discerns the difference between the Right and Left-hand kingdoms. In other words, the Chaplain Corps, at least in theory, takes Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms and masterfully practices it on a daily basis. Sometimes I do things in support of my Command and the Chaplain Corp that have little or nothing to do with my vocation as an LCMS pastor (remember, I’m a Soldier too). Other times, I fulfill my vocational duties as I hear the confessions of my Soldiers, counsel and preach to them from the Word of God, and preside at the Sacraments of our Lord’s Church. Every day I live and work in both kingdoms – that of the State and that of the Church. But without this proper discernment – without the ability to remain fully committed to one’s ecclesial authorities, while at the same time fully supportive of the mission of the Army – the Army chaplain becomes ineffective in ministry. Fortunately, this does not happen often, as my peers are quickly forced to figure out how to navigate the tension of the two kingdoms, less they want their proclamation of the Good News to suffer.

Speaking of my colleagues, the Chaplain Corps also offers an ideal way to do ecumenism. One might even say that ecumenism is as the very heart of the Chaplain Corps. In the Army I am forced to work alongside clergymen (and women) whose theologies I sometimes detest. I am to provide my Soldiers the resources, time, and place to practice their faith, even when it is not my own. But I have never been forced (asked, yes – required, no) to violate the doctrinal commitments of my denomination. This is not to say that Army chaplains are theological lightweights. Quite the contrary, I have had some of the most profound theological discussions since I joined the Army. Indeed, I have had to learn to communicate the teachings of my denomination in ways I never had to when I mostly hung around Lutherans. I have also come to more fully appreciate those outside my ecclesial communion, learning much about my own faith as I work with and support them in their ministries. The Chaplain Corps does – or at least, can do – ecumenism the right way, by simultaneously maintaining theological integrity and pushing comfort zones to long held theological assumptions.

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Finally, the Chaplain Corps, for the most part, remains firmly committed to a rigorous work ethic. Granted, there are some in our ranks who are lazy or have become complacent, but the operational tempo of the Army does not allow our clergy to remain lackadaisical. The Army is always moving, constantly deploying, always doing something. Its Soldiers are the most trained and proficient in the world. So too with its chaplains and their assistants. To meet the spiritual needs of their Soldiers, chaplains must constantly train, remaining proficient first as a pastor, priest, minister, rabbi, priest, etc. but also as one who has responsibilities as a Soldier. This work ethic and commitment to vocational excellence is a model others can and should emulate.

I have a strange job indeed. I serve my church and my state. I work for the Lord and “Caesar”. But it’s a great job and a genius model for ministry. It’s the United States Army Chaplain Corps.

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