Southern Baptists have a profound influence on our nation’s military chaplaincy, both in practice and development. Southern Baptists have more endorsed chaplains serving in the US military than any other denomination or faith group (1,440). Yet their influence does not come primarily from sheer numbers, but from the character of the individuals who serve.
One of those individuals is Chaplain Major General Doug Carver, US Army (retired), and current executive director of chaplaincy services for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). NAMB is the endorsement entity for all Southern Baptist chaplains, military and civilian, a total of 3,617.
Prior to his retirement, Carver served as US Army Chief of Chaplains, the top command position for chaplains. He previously served as the director of the US military’s chaplaincy training center housed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Another Southern Baptist, Chaplain Colonel Allen Kovach, just completed his duties as training center director.
CHAPLAINCY TRAINING CENTER
The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center houses the military’s three chaplain schools: the US Army Chaplaincy Center and School, the US Navy Chaplaincy Center and School, and the US Air Force Chaplain Corps College. More than 2,700 chaplains, chaplain assistants, and religious program specialists train annually at the center.
“Once SBC chaplains are endorsed to a specific military branch of service, they attend the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center and become fully immersed in the institutional culture of their particular branch of service,” said Carver. “It is truly amazing that our nation would build and resource such a training facility for military chaplains. There is none other like it in the world. It is a testimony to the heritage of our nation’s faith in God and the military’s commitment to ensure our young men and women in uniform have the opportunity to exercise their freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
“Chaplain ministry is an extension of the local church. Chaplains are endorsed by the SBC but they answer the call to ministry from their local churches. They are Southern Baptist pastors in uniform.”
Carver contends that chaplains can offer much in service to the local church, particularly with their experience in preaching, evangelism, discipleship, and pastoral care.
Another Southern Baptist serving at the US Army chaplain training center is Chaplain Colonel Byron Simmons. Simmons is director of capabilities development and integration directorate for the US Army Chaplain Center and School.
“SBC endorsement is critical to Southern Baptist chaplains,” said Simmons. “It ensures that only quality, biblically-based pastors are endorsed for military ministry—disciples of Jesus Christ called by God to a unique ministry, and who are equipped to live out their calling in an environment much different than the local church.”
Simmons, in his twenty-eighth year of military chaplaincy, has been in his current assignment for two years. During that time he has interacted with hundreds of chaplains and chaplain assistants.
“My most memorable experiences revolve around the ‘ah ha’ moments chaplains have when they begin to understand the new environment they work in and how that impacts their ministry,” said Simmons. “To properly understand our ministry we must understand ourselves, the soldiers we minister to, and our environment. Just as a ministry in Japan is different from a ministry in Africa, the army chaplain’s ministry is different from its civilian counterpart. This is a big stretch for some chaplains.”
Southern Baptist Chaplain David Kelley is a major in the US Air Force and has been assigned to the Air Force Chaplain Corps College for the last year and a half. His responsibilities include integrating training and rapport with the army and navy schools.
“SBC endorsement of military chaplains is utterly important because we serve to foster the free exercise of religion for all service members,” said Kelley, a fourteen-year Air Force veteran. “We are not only pastors and spiritual care providers for Southern Baptist airmen, we also serve all airmen as spiritual leaders.
“I think one of the toughest challenges chaplains face is too many ministry opportunities and not enough time. There is so much to be done. It’s important that we take care of our families and guard our own walks with the Lord. Just like pastors, we must be intentional about our own spiritual development,” said Kelley.
The balance between individual spiritual integrity and fulfilling an order may be more challenging for a chaplain than almost any other member of the military. Two things help keep true dilemmas at a minimum. One, chaplains are in the military voluntarily, so they at least understand the challenge. The second is their individual religious liberty as provided by the constitution.
“Although the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause restricts the government’s authority to endorse a specific religion, it allows the recruiting and funding of chaplains to promote and ensure the accommodation of religion for our troops,” said Carver. “The Establishment Clause allows chaplains to freely minister according to their religious tradition and within the dictates of their religious conscience.
“The two primary roles of military chaplains are to provide or perform religious services and to advise the commander on all religious matters. Chaplains are not required to perform services contrary to their religious tradition or conscience. If chaplains cannot perform a religious request, they are obligated to assist the military member in finding a resource that meets their individual religious needs.”
The Armed Services Chaplaincy Training Center has been able to handle religious accommodation and many other religious or pastoral issues military chaplains face so well that it has gained an international reputation. Other countries now send their military chaplains to train at the center.
“There are two primary directives for the center,” said Carver. “One is the training of chaplains at all levels, from the unit or tactical level up to the strategic leadership level, including chaplain supervision and mentoring. The basic military course is eleven weeks. There is an advanced course that lasts six months. Both chaplain officers and chaplain assistants are trained at the center. In the army, a unit ministry team is comprised of one chaplain and one chaplain assistant.
“The army typically assigns one chaplain for every 500 to 800 soldiers, including the pastoral support for their families. That’s a large congregation. One of the critical training requirements for chaplains is in the area of pastoral and family counseling. Chaplains must be prepared to walk with their troops and their loved ones through all seasons of life. Unfortunately, especially over the last decade of war, chaplains have been faced with a great deal of loss and suffering,” said Carver.
Societal changes are reflected in the armed services. The same is true for chaplains.
“We are seeing a trend of some chaplains entering the service as a second career,” said Carver. “Some are seasoned pastors who are called into military chaplaincy. Others are called from secular professions into military chaplaincy. For many of our young chaplains, it is the first time they encounter people of other faith groups. Chaplaincy has a way of broadening a religious leader’s worldview.”
America’s war on terror has heightened the need for chaplains who can provide wise and timely advice to their commanders in challenging combat environments.
“One new training initiative is the Center for World Religions,” said Carver. “In the last eleven years of war, our deployed troops have encountered cultures from different faith traditions. Chaplains with a keen understanding of the various world religions can help ensure their troops treat others with dignity and respect, especially when conducting military operations on foreign soil.”
“Another new aspect of training at Fort Jackson,” Carver said, “is the Center for Spiritual Leadership aimed at assisting chaplains in maintaining their own spirituality. It is vital for our troops to have chaplains who are strong and resilient in their own personal faith, prepared to help others struggling with spiritual issues, particularly in combat settings.”
Simmons agrees. He sees this training dimension as one of the most challenging.
“The most difficult part of my assignment is the integration of chaplain-required capabilities across the army,” said Simmons.
Simmons “directs one of the most critically complex missions in the chaplaincy center,” said Carver. “He and his team spend a lot of time studying the emerging military war-fighting trends and their potential effect on the ministry of chaplains in the future combat environment. They must ask the hard questions like: What will military chaplaincy look like in twenty-five years? How do you provide religious support to troops in a virtual combat situation? How do you provide religious rites and pastoral guidance in a complex and widely arrayed combat environment? How do you effectively counsel a soldier over a computer screen?”
If history is any indication, at least one thing will be true in the future of military chaplaincy: Southern Baptist chaplains will serve a central role.
To learn more about how your church can honor chaplains and other members of the military, visit namb.net/chaplaincy.
Joe Conway writes for the North American Mission Board and is a member of First Baptist Church Crabapple in Milton, Georgia.