John Craycraft is executive director of the Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission (CEC) for the Christian churches/churches of Christ. Prior to his 2006 appointment, he served 16 years in local church ministries, and 26 years as a Navy chaplain, retiring as a captain.
In the congregational ministry you may see children born, grow up, get married . . . you live a life cycle with them. In any chaplaincy you are with people for only a limited time and then you may lose track. Ministry may be really intense, but the person gets shipped out, leaves the hospital, or your assignment changes, and you rarely know the outcome.
I had a brief aboard-ship ministry with a senior officer to whom I said, “You need to make a complete change in life if you are ever going to get over your problems.” I was trying to help him become a Christian when he got transferred and our contact ended. But eight years later I was in an airport when he walked up to me and said, “Chaplain, I’ve been hoping to find you for years. My wife, daughter, and I all gave our lives to Christ. Things are really different now.”
Did you always want to be a chaplain?
Since before my schooling at the University of Kentucky and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I felt the Lord called me to be a minister. But, while serving in the church, I felt the Lord wanted me to serve in another way—as he led me to become the first Navy chaplain commissioned by our churches. I felt like this is the ministry I am called to. When I finally retired from the Navy, I served the Tates Creek Christian Church in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. I loved that ministry, but when I got the opportunity to work with the CEC, it seemed like the right fit.
What do you do in your “job”?
With the help of my wife, Glenda, we oversee all of the paperwork for people to get properly commissioned for any kind of chaplaincy. The CEC has 12 commissioners appointed by the Bible college presidents to assure that the chaplains appropriately represent our people. But once the chaplains are approved, I think of myself as the “chaplain to the chaplains.”
Regarding military chaplaincy, is it difficult to be part of the force of a nation at war?
I don’t see the chaplaincy as helping to fight war. It is a ministry to the military people. I am not a pacifist, but I’m not far from it. I never want to take up arms, but chaplains are called to minister to those involved in warfare, some who may like the battle and others who are very unhappy about having to fight.
Is there a conscience conflict there?
I’ve encountered pacifists who say that by receiving a paycheck from the military, the chaplain is serving two masters. I don’t agree. The Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion, and our personnel are unhindered in their ministry to their military colleagues.
Some have suggested that we develop a system of sending missionaries to the military, but that would have serious limitations. Such people would be working from off-base, outside the system, and would certainly not deploy with troops. Could we have anyone in Iraq and Afghanistan? Does anyone think that our churches could support 62 full-time chaplains and their ministry structure?
Chaplaincy offers an open door to meet the spiritual needs of our nation’s sons and daughters.
Is there any restraint on what our chaplains preach?
All of our chaplains have a previous experience as preaching ministers. They preach a message typical of our churches, based in Scripture with real life application. There is no restriction if our chaplains are doing effective ministry, and we have some of the best chaplains in the military. There are great stories of gospel conversions coming out of the war zones.
What is the history of chaplaincy among Christian churches?
We had just a few chaplains in World War II and the Korean War, and just a few over the next 15 years. The Endorsement Commission was called into being in 1969, and the ministry has grown well. The total of 62 military chaplains reflects a recent 20 percent growth rate, even with retirements and other departures.
What’s happening in nonmilitary chaplaincy?
We have more domestic chaplains than military—hospital chaplains, hospice chaplains, prison chaplains, Civil Air Patrol chaplains, fire, police, and rescue chaplains, as well as pastoral counselors. We recently commissioned our first corporate chaplain.
Yes, a major food distributor employs a chaplain to work in the plant, helping people to get their lives straightened out, especially in times of tragedy and crisis.
You link chaplaincy and evangelism closely.
If you want to understand the work of the chaplain, read the Gospels. Jesus’ ministry style parallels chaplaincy. He did most of his ministry outside of the synagogue, working with people in their life contexts. Evangelism found its open door through his caring personal ministry.
What are the biggest chaplain challenges you are seeing right now?
Reentry is a challenge for those who have served in war zones. Spending time where shells are falling nearby, where bombs blow up in public settings, where the enemy is often hard to identify . . . all of this really impacts mind and spirit. It is as true for the chaplains as for the enlisted people. Our churches really need to provide a warm, sensitive homecoming for our people who have been on the battlefront.
What would you say to a college student who wants to be a chaplain?
First, you need to be well equipped for ministry. There are strong academic requirements. You need to have experience in serving in the church. You need to be a good preacher/teacher/counselor. You need to be ordained or commissioned by a local church before we can commission you. But I would also say, “I hope you will pursue that desire, if it is God’s calling for you. Chaplaincy is a wonderful way to serve Jesus.”
Paul Boatman is chaplain of Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.