REAL Commitment: Military Chaplains Serve God and Country
There’s a common military expression: “Somewhere out there is a bullet with your name on it.” Both soldiers in the line of fire and those farther from the front lines need spiritual counsel from people who understand the high-risk, high-stress environment of military life. The people who provide pastoral care and support for those who put their lives on the line for their country—and their families—are military chaplains.
Several dozen Candler alums serve as military chaplains, among them Chaplain Matthew T. Stevens 94T, who serves in the U.S. Navy. He says that chaplains must maintain “an active, visible, constant presence with the people they serve.”
“Even when things are at their worst, a chaplain being there represents God’s presence,” says Stevens. “It reminds people that God will never leave them or forsake them, that God will always be there with them. Chaplains are a visible representation of that.”
The Navy’s website calls chaplaincy “a calling within a calling.” It requires 24/7 ministry to people of diverse faith groups, as well as those with no faith. Chaplains serve as a trusted confidant for personnel, provide counseling on spiritual issues, conduct worship services, perform religious rites, oversee religious education, visit injured personnel, and advise military leaders, to name but a few of their broad tasks.
To qualify, chaplains must meet physical fitness standards and hold a bachelor’s degree as well as a graduate degree in theology. Chaplains must also receive an ecclesiastical endorsement from a faith organization registered with the Department of Defense. The Army, Air Force and Navy all maintain their own chaplain corps; the Navy is also responsible for providing chaplaincy service for the Marines and the Coast Guard.
Second-year MDiv student Meredith Dark is working toward becoming a military chaplain. She tried to join the military twice before coming to Candler, only to be dissuaded by high school principals and family members who wanted her to pursue higher education before enlisting. She attended Wofford College, majored in government and religion, and then, having felt a call to ministry since the 9th grade, decided to enroll at Candler.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Dark says, “and now I can see how getting my education first and then going into the military is the best way to use my gifts.”
Dark knows she has a long road to walk before she’s a chaplain: Though she took her oath of office to the Navy in June 2012, she still has to graduate from Candler in 2014, complete two years as a provisional member of the South Carolina Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, and receive Navy approval. That means it will be 2016, at the earliest, before she sees active duty.
For now, though, there’s plenty to keep her busy. Dark maintains a strict schedule of physical conditioning. She checks in with her recruiter every quarter, and, of course, she focuses on her class work. She says each class, from pastoral care to Christian ethics, is preparing her for the tough conversations she’ll have in her future career. Dark also credits Candler’s ecumenical environment for helping her learn how to talk about faith with a variety of people.
While Dark is going through seminary with military chaplaincy as a goal, the career path was a bit more of a surprise for Stevens, an ordained elder in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. He served three small congregations before hearing a commercial about military chaplaincy that changed his life.
Interested in doing something different in ministry, Stevens joined the Navy. Since 1998, he has completed numerous tours and deployments, and he has earned the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with three gold stars and the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
The Navy gave Stevens the opportunity to complete a Pastoral Care Residency program and earn Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) credits, and through that, Stevens realized his love for pastoral counseling.
“I had the chance to do CPE when I was in seminary, but I wasn’t ready for it yet,” he says. “Taking it when I did is the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a reminder of why God gave me two ears and one mouth—I can do ministry better by listening than by talking.”
Stevens is now at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., where he is a staff chaplain. He also serves on a multidisciplinary care team in the Traumatic and Operational Stress Services Clinic, where he facilitates patient programs on spirituality, moral injury, grief, and forgiveness.
“The pastoral counseling is my absolute favorite part of the job,” he says. “I get to create a safe space for people to tell their story, and in telling that story, they can start to experience healing. It’s literally the resurrection. I get a chance to experience resurrection as I see healing take place in their life. To see the presence of the Holy Spirit in that way—it’s addictive.”
Veterans may not have the chance to engage with a counselor before returning home, which is why Stevens hopes to challenge local churches to step up to the challenge of serving the vets in their congregations.
“It’s important that local churches step up their awareness and willingness to engage the sometimes traumatic experience of being a human being,” he says. “Even when I was young, I had to live an R-rated life. Most of humanity lives in a XXX-rated world. But the church only provides a PG-rated message.”
Stevens says that this need for churches to provide safety and space for the traumatized will help not just veterans, but all people in a congregation, including victims of abuse and rape. PTSD is a human thing, not just a military thing, he notes, so dealing with it is the province of all in ministry, not just military chaplains.
“If we as the church don’t deal directly with trauma, loss, and fear, it calls into question our belief in resurrection,” says Stevens. “Can we go to the valley of the shadow of death with our people? Can we live through that to get to resurrection? The church needs to provide the space and safety for people to be heard, so that the church can grow in fullness with them.”