Reflecting on over 38 years of service as an enlisted member of the Marine Corps, a Marine officer and, eventually, as a Navy chaplain in the Reserves (who mobilized numerous times), here are a few basic recommendations I would offer to those still serving, as well as for those future generations of chaplains based on a recent glance in my personal rearview mirror:
- Maintain your spiritual identity as you serve in an institutional setting. Remember you are a child of the Eternal King and a servant of the Most-High God! Practice your spiritual disciplines with great fervor and consistency so those around you know you take your ministry as seriously as they take their own professional development. If you lose this anchoring, you will become like tasteless salt to the very people you are supposed to be leading spiritually, and you risk losing your voice of influence when it’ll be needed the most.
- Revisit your calling regularly. Take time to regularly ask yourself the question: “Why am I here in this role, in this place and at this time?” Consistently rekindling connections with denominational resources such as your home church or sending church, endorsing agents and influential pastors/mentors, will help significantly at various junctures along the path. Your mission as a chaplain is to steadily maintain a course of caring for the spiritual needs of military personnel and their loved ones and sharing the Good News about Christ with all who will listen. Otherwise, you will become distracted or possibly overwhelmed by all that beckons for your attention in a very challenging setting, especially combat. You risk losing your way and may even lead others astray.
- Take action and follow through on what really matters and will make a difference in eternity. Define your priorities based on faithful obedience to God’s voice, values and principles as represented in God’s Word, the Bible. Make decisions that show that you respect the mission at hand and care for the people involved. This kind of fervent “doing” shaped by God’s love will penetrate even the toughest of circumstances. If you lack in this effort, you may find yourself falling short of God’s hopes and expectations for ministry, or possible sitting in “a cave” (or depressed state) somewhere wondering what happened.
- Cherish the relationships you build with others. Form a collection of memories that will serve as a satisfying ointment for your soul when your military service is complete. From this collection, a bouquet of fragrant memories and sacred stories will emerge. These can serve as a sweet-smelling aroma lifted to God as a testimonial offering, exemplifying His faithfulness to you as you served others. Forgetting to do this will dampen the realization of God’s grace in your own life and squelch the echo of His goodness to this and future generations.
With such awareness in mind, let’s shift our attention from the rearview mirror back onto the horizon before us and drive the gospel forward in the time yet granted to do so. May God give you clear ears, sharp eyes, a keen mind and a heart full of courage to fulfill these expectations while revisioning chaplaincy for the 21st century.
Published December 10, 2020