By Tom Ellsworth
Gen. George Washington wanted chaplains to serve with the Continental Army during the American War for Independence. Due to a lack of funds, however, Congress would not authorize such commissions. Nevertheless, John Hurt, an Anglican minister, joined the fight and became a chaplain to the brigade under the command of Gen. George Weedon.
Known as “bravest of the brave,” Hurt served alongside his fellow Virginia soldiers in historic battles at Trenton, Brandywine Creek, Monmouth, and more. He endured the winter encampment at Valley Forge and was even captured by the British. So, when Congress finally authorized the role of chaplain in 1791, it is no surprise that John Hurt became the first to serve officially in that capacity.
Throughout history, the U.S. military has required a chaplain be endorsed by a religious organization to qualify for active-duty service. For denominations, that was not an issue, but how does a nondenominational entity like the Christian churches and churches of Christ meet that requirement?
A Serendipitous Start
The need for chaplains was so desperate during World War II that the Army relaxed its affiliation prerequisite to help meet the demand. Many ministers from the independent Christian churches stepped into that role and served faithfully. However, following the war, the military returned to the original requirements. One former chaplain, Guy Mayfield, joined forces with Charles Gresham, James D. Murch, Chaplain Charles Trinkle, and other recognized leaders to create the Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. In 1969, the commission officially came together and has been serving the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement ever since.
Retired Col. Charles Trinkle became the first executive director. The original 12 commissioners came from former chaplains, institutions of higher education, ministers of local congregations, and mission agencies. Today, the CEC strives to maintain a similar diverse balance. While I did not serve in the military, it has been my great honor to serve on this commission and in some small way help provide outstanding chaplains to lead and serve in our nation’s armed services.
Kal McAlexander, the current executive director, served 28 years as a Navy chaplain and retired with the rank of captain. Kal and his wife, Cindy, accepted this new challenge January 1, 2016. Kal has accomplished much over the last six years. Those who served before him left big shoes to fill, but Kal has filled them well.
Many Ministry Contexts
The Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission originally endorsed only military chaplains, but during its lifetime it has expanded its scope to endorse chaplains serving with the Veterans Administration, in hospitals, hospice, police departments, fire departments, prison, jails, the Secret Service, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol, and more. Privacy regulations prevent us from sharing many of their wonderful stories, but rest assured during the COVID-19 pandemic the hospital and hospice chaplains have provided crucial ministry to patients and staff that has been over and above the normal ministry provided.
Police department chaplains have stepped up to meet the challenges of providing ministry during periods of civil unrest and the “defund the police” movements. Fire department chaplains have also ministered effectively through the pandemic and the hardships of civil unrest. At the time of this writing, the CEC has 250 endorsed chaplains—109 serve in the military and 141 in other ministry areas.
Having been ordained 45 years ago, I’m familiar with ministry in the local church, but I had little understanding of a military chaplain’s role. Through my time as a commissioner for more than a decade, I have come to truly appreciate the chaplain’s unique ministry role.
Spiritual Victories without Invitations
Kal McAlexander, the CEC director, began his Navy chaplaincy by serving with the 3rd Battalion on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. (If you have seen the movie Full Metal Jacket, it begins with the experience in the 3rd Battalion).
The command chaplain there asked Kal not to offer an invitation to accept Christ at the end of his sermons. His superior felt recruits could be influenced or manipulated too easily and did not want any of them to make emotional decisions that might not last. While disappointed at the demand, Kal looked for other ways to make that opportunity available. He noticed at orientation that the Catholic chaplain referenced a box on the Marine religious data card and encouraged the recruits to check the box if they needed baptism, confirmation, a sacrament, or had other questions pertaining to Catholicism. Kal pointed out to his command chaplain that the card needed to include a Protestant box. At subsequent orientations, he too would invite the recruits to check that box if they wanted to accept Christ and be baptized or had any other spiritual questions for him.
In his time at Parris Island, Kal baptized 326 Marines without offering an invitation. Additionally, he helped develop 16 weeks of discipleship training for the Marine recruits before they were turned over to the care of fleet chaplains. That program continues to be used today.
Wherever Kal served, lives were changed. He participated in life-changing decisions and had baptisms on Guam, in Thailand, in the Philippines, and in Japan.
One never knows how gospel seed planted will take root and produce a harvest. During his Desert Storm deployment on the Aegis Cruiser, Mobile Bay, Kal’s executive officer had little use for chaplains. Despite that, the “XO” enjoyed stimulating conversations with Kal. A few years later, after his XO left the ship, Kal received a note from him that read something like this: “Chaplain, you may not believe this, but I just couldn’t forget our conversations and I have now become a Christian.” Six years later, Kal received another note stating that his former XO had become an elder, and still later, that he had become chairman of the elders (it’s a role he still holds). Victories come, all in God’s timing!
Navy Chaplain Adam Boggess is currently stationed on Okinawa and is leading well. After a baptism at the beginning of the new year, he commented, “The good thing about living on an island [is that there is] water all around—‘Look, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’” I like his optimistic style!
Ministry to the Psychologically Wounded
Of course, the chaplain’s role includes more than just evangelism. In my civilian ministry, I didn’t see the woundedness that is unique to soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Air Force Lt. Col. Rolf Holmquist shares about programs designed to help in crisis moments. The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Religious Support Teams (RSTs), which are comprised of a chaplain and a Religious Affairs airman, are committed to caring for airmen and their families. These teams have been instrumental in providing 10,000 hours of counseling for 8,700 personnel.
Through their efforts, nearly 800 crises were avoided and 37 potential suicides were stopped, all while caring for airmen amid the COVID pandemic this past year. Additionally, AFSOC RSTs heroically responded to the COVID-driven isolation by investing 11,000 hours of visitation with families and 2,800 hours of counseling. Worship services, programs, and unit visitation succeeded in the virtual world until it was safe to meet face-to-face again.
Suicide is a major problem in the military. In his first tour as chaplain at Camp Lejeune, Navy Lt. j.g. Jesse McAlexander (Kal and Cindy’s son) faced six suicide ideations/attempts in his first month of duty! A few years ago, the Army hired the Rand Corporation to do a study on the rising numbers of suicide in their ranks. After two years of research and $2 million in expenditures, researchers could not find a common denominator except for the overwhelming sense of guilt and shame experienced among military personnel. Rand recommended that the Army hire more chaplains.
Think of the lives saved and transformed by those of our tribe who serve as chaplains. A few years back, the Navy estimated it costs U.S. taxpayers $400,000 to recruit, train, educate, and get a sailor to the level of petty officer 1st class. (Academy graduates cost about $1 million!) Aside from a saved and transformed life, if a chaplain helps rescue a sailor or soldier from attempted suicide, or from making an outrageous decision that might result in a dishonorable discharge, he has saved the government thousands of dollars.
Moral injury (MI) is another area where chaplains are uniquely qualified to make a difference.
“MI is a serious struggle for those who feel as though they have ‘transgressed’ or stepped over the line of morality, what is right and wrong,” Lt. Col. Holmquist writes. “Guilt, shame, feeling betrayed, and condemning oneself are just some of the feelings airmen have when they come back from the battlefield. . . . Our focus is for them to have time to lament, repent, confess, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ.”
Only Jesus Christ can remove that guilt and shame and restore an individual’s worth. And how will they hear without a chaplain?
How to Support Our Chaplains
Our men and women who serve as chaplains, while being good at caring for others, may not always get the opportunity to care for themselves. Ministry seldom provides a respite for those who serve. You can help in several ways.
The first is through prayer. Pray for those who serve in various chaplaincy roles and for their families. Pray they will find support and encouragement amid their ministry. Pray for their families while they are deployed. Pray for their protection when they are in harm’s way with the troops. And pray that God will advance and multiply their ministry efforts.
Perhaps you or your congregation could “adopt” a chaplain by writing encouraging notes, sending care packages to the chaplain’s family, and by keeping your congregation informed on a regular basis about the chaplain’s ministry.
Individual Christians and congregations might also consider providing financial support to the Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission. Commissioners volunteer their time, but still they have many expenses. The commission needs to support and encourage both the civilian and military chaplains in as many ways as possible.
These men and women are quality individuals who serve the Lord in civilian and military chaplaincy roles on our behalf. One of our Army chaplains recently went through the rigorous training to be an Army Ranger. While he was attending ICOM, he was called back because his commanding officer didn’t want his Rangers to deploy without their chaplain. This chaplain has earned the highest respect not only from his fellow Rangers but also from his commanding officer.
That is true for most of our chaplains. They are highly regarded and well respected. They are being promoted quickly and serving in key places like the Chief of Chaplains Office, Walter Reed Hospital, the chaplains schools, recruiting commands, and more. These folks are worthy of our support, prayers, and encouragement. If someday one of my grandchildren chooses to enlist, I pray he or she will be shepherded by one of our outstanding chaplains!