Wednesday, December 08, 2010
I was first attracted to the chaplaincy when I was serving as a missionary in Korea. Although most of my time was spent among Koreans I would occasionally see an American, usually a member of the military. At times these young men looked out of place, confused, and lonely and I would help them by translating or giving them directions. At other times they would be loud, obnoxious and frequently drunk. I imagined them as farm boys from some small southern town, like myself. This was probably their first experience outside America and for many it was their first experience with alcohol or sex. I thought of how I could help them and decided to become a military chaplain.
Fifteen years later after my own military experience in the Marines, a graduate degree in counseling, a marriage and four children, I achieved that goal when I was appointed a chaplain in the United States Army. It was a grand time and a far more varied and interesting ministry than one might expect in a local parish. This experience and the training of the Chaplains Corps taught me a great deal about ministry in a pluralistic society, advocating for minority religions, defending freedom of religion and right of choice, offering a variety of services, and ministry to the unchurched. It confirmed for me the importance of an active ministry of presence.
But to fully understand the meaning of the chaplaincy we must review its mythical origin with St. Martin of Tours. The story goes that St. Martin was a Roman soldier in Gaul (now France) who was preparing to receive baptism as a Christian. On one occasion he was entering the gate of a city where he saw a shivering beggar. Without hesitation, he got down from his horse, took out his sword and split his military cloak in half. He gave half of the cloak to the beggar. That night Martin had a vision of Christ who appeared to him wearing the one-half of the cloak that had been given to the beggar.
St. Martin went on to receive baptism and began a legendary ministry that eventually led to a bishopric. His ministry was characterized by many miracles including healings and casting out of demons. He is said to have even preached to the devil himself. But soon after receiving baptism he resigned from the Roman Army explaining that he had been a soldier of Rome but now that he was a Christian he could not serve as a soldier. But he would serve as a soldier of.
At some point the cloak of St. Martin began to be treated as a sacred relic. Those who were charged with care of the sacred cloak became known as cappelani (a word which is cognate with the English word “cape”). Special sanctuaries were built known as chapels. Eventually the term chaplain came to be applied to those ministers who functioned as special counselors to nobility and royalty and eventually it was applied to those priests who traveled with and ministered to soldiers.
The meaning of the myth is not in the cloak, the relic, itself. That is merely a metaphor for the real character of the chaplaincy which is to minister to those who are encountered by the chaplain. It is a ministry of opportunity – the beggar at the gate, soldiers preparing to fight in a strange land, those who are suffering, questioning, homeless, in prison, or dying. The ministry of a chaplain is not confined to a certain place or belief system.
A chaplain has many tools for helping others (or as one of my battalion commanders said, “The chaplain has a big cage and if you let him he will take away all the monkeys that are bothering you”). These tools include liturgical tools which can be applied within a given tradition or creatively to meet nondenominational needs or through the design of celebrations and rituals that might not fit in a traditional setting. The chaplain can even assist in gaining access to services which he or she cannot provide. For example, I once assisted a young soldier in basic training prepare for a Summer Solstice ritual. On another occasion I arranged for transportation to take Muslims and Jews to appropriate services. Of course, the chaplain can perform other functions associated with ministry including preaching, teaching, scriptural interpretation, exhortations, and the performance of specific types of rituals and services. These are not limited to time or place. I have held services in bivouac sites, stockades, National Guard Armories, and even in the Korean National Prison. I have organized and taught classes on the scriptures, different cultures, and such issues as suicide prevention and stress management. In addition to these functions the chaplain is a counselor. As is well known ministers do much more first-line counseling than do professional counselors but perhaps less known is that chaplains do even more so. This takes many forms – crisis counseling, pre-marriage counseling, marriage counseling, counseling with children, career counseling, financial counseling, and of course counseling on spiritual and religious issues. This counseling sometimes has an institutional flavor since the chaplain associated with an institution whether military or other is usually a member of the commanding officer’s or chief executive officer’s special staff. The chaplain must often say the difficult things that others are unwilling to say. He or she may also provide insights that the commander would otherwise have no other means of gaining. The chaplain is the conscience of the institution.
These various functions can be performed anywhere. They may be visits to the hospital or to the work place. They can be done in a chapel or under a tree. And they need not be scheduled since the chaplain will hopefully be able to be present at the right time with the right message. I have many fond memories as a military chaplain doing my ministry on mountain sides, motor pools, and road marches as well as in chapel and classroom. Outside the military I was privileged to be a voluntary chaplain with the VA with homeless veterans and on other occasions to be the leader of a support group for children whose parents were deployed. More recently I have taught Sunday School classes for the children of homeless people and ministered to the homeless at various places in the community. At other times I have been blessed to serve residents of a nursing home.
The salient characteristics of the chaplaincy are in the great diversity of roles the chaplain can play in so many settings – preacher, teacher, liturgist, celebrant, visitor, retreat leader, counselor, advisor, and healer. And equally as important is the chaplain’s role in ensuring that everyone has religion freedom and freedom of conscience. Many years ago the legitimacy of the Army Chaplaincy was challenged on the basis that it violated separation of Church and State. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where the chaplaincy won because it was asserted that its main function was to maintain the religious freedom of all soldiers. That remains a primary function of non-military chaplains who must work to meet the spiritual and religious needs of everyone – not just those who belong to a given denomination or who attend a certain church service. In this sense, the chaplain is a wandering ministry who goes where the need is greatest and provides whatever ministry is needed or acceptable.
Rev. Robert Nelson
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