What are some of the biggest challenges facing military chaplains?
The biggest challenge for most chaplains is the pluralistic environment in which we have to work and the strong prohibition against “proselytizing.” Not that I’m a believer in making “converts,” but we do have to be very careful in how we talk about our faith with soldiers whom we counsel. There are many who are really anti-Christian and who appear to have an agenda to rid the military of its chaplains. These people and organizations appear to believe that the chaplains are out to convert and “Christianize” everyone. While we have had issues with some chaplains in the past, those of the extreme fundamentalist and zealous background, the majority of the chaplains are very respectful of all faiths and beliefs. But the environment can be a challenge.
Another challenge for some is the vastly different backgrounds from which the majority of our young soldiers come. Many are from broken and/or blended families, often raised by relatives other than biological parents, sometimes from abusive backgrounds, with poor relational and coping skills. They are often crude and violent. The language tends to be very rough. Sometimes, incidents that occur appear to be outlandish and bizarre, of soap opera quality and more. But if ministry is done well, the rewards can be so great.
How can church leaders support members of our armed forces?
Churches can be open and inviting. Provide a safe haven for military members and their families to come and share their stories, to be themselves, and to receive lots of love. The families have to endure frequent and long periods, like deployments for a year or more, when the military member is gone from the home. The spouse has to manage the entire household by him/herself, operating as a single parent. The children have to endure an absent parent, sometimes not fully understanding why. Relationships can be strained. There can be financial hardships.
Churches can help by providing emotional support and physical help, i.e. a night for the spouse to be away from the kids or prepared meals or a support group for military children to share experiences with others. The hardest thing for military families is to find people who understand their needs, especially for those who are far away from their own families and support networks.