Most ministers serve in churches, working alongside leaders in their congregation to train, equip and mobilize laity for the work of discipleship. Some of The Wesleyan Church's (TWC) most load-bearing ministry, however, is carried out by chaplains, ministers whose congregations gather without a church building and whose laity often have no ongoing relationship with a local church.
“Chaplains are seen as visible reminders of the holy,” said Rev. Amber Kunkel, an Air Force chaplain stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.
That “visibility” is more constant for military chaplains than for most clergy, as their ministry is situated within their constant presence in a military unit. Many chaplains’ most meaningful ministry moments occur “not at the chapel, nor with people who have a particular faith that’s well-defined,” said Dr. Gary Carr, TWC associate chaplain endorser. “Ninety percent of the people chaplains have an impact upon are not people of faith who would be a part of a traditional congregation.”
Carr served as an active-duty chaplain in the U.S. Navy from 1987-2007 and was recently selected as vice chair of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF). A liaison between the Department of Defense and TWC, he offers perspective on how chaplains can teach about Unleashing a Kingdom Force around the globe.
In addition to pastoral skills needed to navigate the usual questions of life, death, connection and meaning present in any ministry, military chaplains help parishioners cope with separation from family, fraught relationships with fellow servicemembers and post-traumatic stress. Because of the depth of shared experience, military chaplains serve as a prayerfully attentive presence amidst a group of soldiers who, because of their drive and determination, often need a reminder to care for their emotional health and to tend to spiritual connection and community with others.
You can understand a human being, connect with them and hear their pain — rather than put them in a place of condemnation.
“You can understand a human being, connect with them and hear their pain — rather than put them in a place of condemnation,” said Kunkel. “Some of the most intense warriors out there have fragile hearts.”
Like any pastoral position, chaplaincy requires organizational structure administration. Because chaplains occupy a dual role — as clergy and government employees — they must be conversant in both godly counsel and government policy. They must help protect those of different faiths — or no faith — from undue harm or ostracization.
“Chaplains do their entire ministry in a pluralistic environment,” said Carr. “And we find ways to navigate these situations as a trusted agent, helping those we serve navigate these situations according to their beliefs, even as we hold fast to our own.”
Pastors working within an increasingly pluralistic society could learn from chaplains who see the underlying spiritual needs of their peers, even when those peers do not engage within a distinctly Christian paradigm. Engaging in non-anxious conversation with those who believe differently, offering presence and creating space for others to consider spiritual matters are part of “compassion, care, dignity and respect,” Carr said, “which goes a long way in the process of providing ministry.”
Chaplains offer care in numerous contexts worldwide, deploying with their units as assignments change.
“If you’re a chaplain, you can make calls [for resources, help and assistance] and make things happen that others wouldn’t,” said Kunkel, recounting times she and other chaplains have worked with providers to advocate for others.
“We have chaplains serving with the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, deployed all around the world. On any given day, 24 hours a day, we have a chaplain doing evangelism, pastoral care and professional education, reaching hundreds, thousands, and their influence is far and wide,” said Carr.
Annually, 30 percent of troops rotate out of a unit. Within three to four years, a chaplain has a completely new congregation, hopefully sending their initial congregation out to disciple others. Carr mentioned how this short tenure with their parishioners often helps the best chaplains build ministry structures that encourage the “seeding” capacity of the people under their care, “so they can fan out and be a discipling presence wherever they go.”
Amidst all this load-bearing discipleship work, chaplains face the same stress of other soldiers: family separation, interpersonal challenges and the need to cultivate habits of health and connection with God.
Carr and Kunkel encourage readers to pray for chaplains and their families, as they face the challenges, pressures and needs present in ministry and the military, and to look for how they might partner with chaplains (in military, fire department, law enforcement, hospitals, hospices or other local contexts) through their own congregations.