1 December, 2022

Military Chaplaincy (It May Not Be What You Think)

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by | 1 May, 2022

By Lt. Jamin M. Bailey

“What the [blank] is this?” The sergeant exploded into the barracks room, crossed it with long strides, and cornered two Marines against a wall. The young Marines, their thin frames fresh from the Crucible of boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, snapped to attention, fear in their eyes. The angry sergeant unleashed a steady stream of loud profanity as two terrified female Marines came out of the “head” (restroom) and the four young people were hustled outside.

On the concrete outside the barracks, three more sergeants joined the fray and the tension skyrocketed. Knife hands (a boot camp intimidation tactic), screaming, and other tools of Marine Corps’ discipline came down on the two Marines (the female Marines had disappeared) in an eruption of anger witnessed by scores of future infantry Marines and by one Johnson Bible College student [me] visiting his brother.

As I stood there watching intently and wanting to help, the atmosphere suddenly changed. A person in uniform walked up. I was told, “The chaplain is here.” This chaplain engaged in conversation with the Marines . . . all of them. The chaplain—speaking with firm grace—introduced a new element into the chaos: peace.

The offending Marines probably deserved a dressing down from their sergeants. They also needed grace, and that came from the chaplain. Standing aside in a grassy field with the two Marines, the chaplain listened to their story and provided them with care, advice, and a confidential place to share.

This event unfolded on a Saturday night at a training base surrounded by guarded gates and high fences. No civilian pastor had access to what I witnessed, but that chaplain was present and made a difference in the lives of those Marines.

The course of my life changed in that moment. My eyes were opened to a form of ministry I had never considered. I realized that I was meant to be a chaplain.

A Mid-Course Correction

I discovered my call to full-time ministry while in high school, three years before that night at Camp Geiger. At the time, I was leading Bible studies and occasionally preaching; these things led my father, youth pastor, and other mentors to encourage me to pray about serving a church as a pastor. I was excited when I showed up at Johnson Bible College (now Johnson University) in the fall of 2002 and started on a path I anticipated would lead to pulpit ministry.

After my second year at Johnson, I traveled to Camp Geiger (part of Camp Lejeune) to visit my younger brother during his Marine training and witnessed the impact of the life-on-life ministry a chaplain provides. That crisis moment opened my eyes to a more specific giftedness and calling in my life. I wanted to be “the chaplain” bringing peace and hope to those Marines.

I spoke with military veterans about chaplaincy, and they encouraged me to join up and serve as a Marine before becoming a chaplain. In their opinion, a “prior service” chaplain had an advantage in understanding and empathizing with Marines because of the intimate knowledge of military life and culture they gained.

So, I earned the title “Marine” through the rigors of Officer Candidates School and the Basic School at Quantico, Virginia. I served as a Marine Corps combat engineer officer for six years, during which I was deployed several times across the South Pacific and Middle East. I built schools on humanitarian missions in the mountains of the Philippines and supported the 2010 “surge” in Afghanistan.

During those busy years and operations in 15 countries, I experienced care from the various unit chaplains where I was assigned. It was the perfect medium for me to gain experience and observe best practices for chaplain ministry.

After six years in the Marines, I attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then I served in corporate chaplaincy for six years.

In 2020, I finally came full circle and joined the Navy as a chaplain. For more than a year, I have been the command chaplain for the USS Gettysburg (CG 64), a guided missile cruiser based in Norfolk, Virginia.

Flawed Perspectives and Facts

“What’s it like to have to do church for every religion?” Even Christians who are generally unfamiliar with theology and church practice ask me that question.

Many reasons exist for this perspective of chaplaincy, and most stem from the wrong idea that chaplains serve as one-size-fits-all “spiritual advisers” charged with performing services for all religions and that chaplains are muzzled from sharing the truth of the gospel.

This widespread idea is false.

Military chaplains are, in fact, protected and enabled to freely exercise their religion. Some commanders have tried to silence or penalize good chaplains for faithfully teaching according to their faith, and those chaplains have been exonerated every time. [*See my note at the end of this article.]

Many evangelical Christians also have the misguided notion that chaplaincy is a “less than” ministry. It’s less than a church pastorate, less than church planting, less than inner-city outreach, and far less than foreign missions work.

The truth is, some of the most powerful presentations of the gospel and most effective evangelistic outreach to the unchurched I have seen come in the context of military and corporate chaplaincy.

Chaplains work alongside people from all over the country and world. Through genuine relationships built over time, they have the opportunity to bring the light of Jesus to those who would never darken the door of a church. Military chaplains gain permission to explicitly and lovingly share the hope of life offered in the gospel with servicemembers through their long periods together in otherwise out-of-reach places. They become a bridge from the unchurched to the church.

Military chaplains must provide ministry according to their religious organization (RO), and that organization only. When we preach, teach the Bible, pray, and disciple our servicemembers, we must do so as a representative of our endorsing RO. If I stray from that faith and practice, I will lose my endorsement. A military chaplain who loses their endorsement either must quickly find a new group who will endorse them or be discharged from the military.

I have a file folder packed with official policies and instructions about chaplaincy. Far from restraining what I can do, these policies focus and protect my ministry by specifically protecting the free exercise of my faith as a representative of the Christian church.

The Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission serves as the endorser for the Christian churches and churches of Christ. They vet and sponsor chaplains for all forms of chaplaincy and then actively engage with policy makers to protect our free exercise of religion. (For more information about the CEC, see www.cec-chap.org or the article by Tom Ellsworth in this issue.)

Chaplains are called by God to take the gospel to unchurched and unsaved people where they live and work. We are missionaries and pastors, teachers and intercessors, counselors and advisers. We are a friend in good times and a shoulder to lean on in the valleys. We encourage and disciple fellow believers and provide opportunities to grow deeper in faith. We do all of this in a secular environment while resting in and sharing the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I love the imagery Chaplain Allan T. Baker provides in his book The Foundations of Chaplaincy:

While local-church models typically reinforce a wagon-wheel approach, where the pastor remains at the center and the outside community follows the spokes inward, chaplains invert the wagon-wheel model by providing their presence where people live and work along the outer wheel rim.

An ‘Ordinary’ Day in the Life of a Military Chaplain

I wake up before 5 a.m. every day, arrive at Naval Station Norfolk by 6 a.m., and spend the day serving the sailors onboard USS Gettysburg. I regularly roam the ship’s 10 decks and engage in spontaneous conversations as I check in on the crew during the workday. My office is located next to the ship’s store and the command master chief’s office, so sailors going for a candy bar or just walking by often come in, shut the door, and say, “Hey, Chaps, can we talk?”

Once Gettysburg deploys, the relationships built now will bear more fruit. The chaplain serves the crew when no one else can. And should full-scale war occur, the Navy’s chaplains will provide the spiritual fortitude needed as sailors and Marines face the prospect of death and eternity. We care for the anxious, the wounded and dying, and the traumatized. God uses the chaplains’ presence in powerful ways to provide peace in the darkness and eternal life in Jesus.

An Incredible Opportunity

We need more men and women from Christian churches and churches of Christ to rise to the opportunity afforded by military chaplaincy (and other forms of chaplaincy). The “free exercise of religion” applies to all chaplains, so we have an incredible opportunity to saturate the military with chaplains who understand the purity and centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we do not, then chaplains with other beliefs will.

What makes a good chaplain? Loving Jesus and loving people are essential. Operating as a military officer can be complex, but all the technical aspects of chaplaincy can be surmounted if you genuinely care about people, engage well with them, and operate in and through the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus to those lost in darkness.

This opportunity for kingdom work is accompanied by great pay, benefits, and an opportunity for military retirement. Deployments and the real possibility of combat make military chaplaincy a calling for those who feel the Lord has given them the passion and tools to walk into the valley of the shadow of death alongside those who need the hope and peace of Jesus Christ.

If this call to chaplain ministry resonates with your heart, I would be honored to help you better understand the calling and journey. I invite you to contact me at jaminbailey06@gmail.com. For everyone else, I ask you to pray for the Lord to raise up workers for this harvest and I encourage you to support our sending organization, the Chaplaincy Endorsement Commission.

Jamin Bailey lives in Virginia Beach with his wife, Crystal, and their four children. He graduated from Johnson University (BA, preaching) and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv, Christian ministry). A Marine Corps officer for six years, Jamin also served for six years as a chaplain and regional director for Corporate Chaplains of America before joining the Navy. Until recently, he was assigned as command chaplain for the USS Gettysburg (CG 64) based in Norfolk, Virginia, but shortly before this was published, he was deployed with USS Forrest Sherman in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

*A handful of chaplains over the last two decades have claimed discrimination and even persecution for trying to teach their faith. I do not have the space in this format to specifically address each case, but feel free to reach out to me at jaminbailey06@gmail.com to discuss.

Christian Standard

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