Three Insights from Chaplaincy to Parish


Rev. Dr. Robert PhillipsIn 1977 I entered active duty as a Navy chaplain, retiring in 2005 to return to local church ministry. Now that I am eight years into that transition, I offer three insights that ministry as a military chaplain offered me that have transferred with rich benefit to ministry in the local church. I chose three in honor of the Trinity and because Augustine said that a good sermon, like a good stool, needs three legs.
First, get out of the office. “Chapel-dweller” chaplains were viewed by the young adult troops as irrelevant, plopped in their office waiting for personal interaction to like-minded religious types. Like garnish on the plate, real world military members would see such chaplains as nice decorations for special events but easy to flick aside when hard living and problems reared their heads. The effective chaplain would construct his or her schedule to maximize time and availability with those never darkening the door of the chapel or specific religious services. The “irony” was that those were the chaplains who routinely found their worship and Bible study attendance growing.
Parish pastors have a huge conspiracy to combat over the calendar, events and demands that can clog his or her day with the agendas of the saints such that no time is left to actually be around sinners. The price is the loss of ability to understand or relate to the vast majority of Americans who have no use for what we do and find our insider religious language goofy.
Your natural schedule is not your friend. Your local church leaders probably will not understand but often are willing to be convinced. Start that conversation with any veterans in your congregation for they will likely have an idea of what you are seeking to do. The schedule must be altered with a purpose to ensure regular and meaningful involvement with those who don’t go to your church or any church. When I realized that over 90 percent of the young sailors and Marines I saw during a given day were not part of my worshipping congregation but were very open to conversation with a chaplain who was present to them in their own personal goo, numerous openings followed for meaningful ministry and witness for Christ. Get out of the office!
Second, embrace your Wesleyan heritage as you serve as resident theologian in your parish. United Methodists have a huge advantage in extension ministry settings as Wesleyans. Some faith groups reject cooperation with those not “of like mind.” Others grudgingly allow cooperation but only in the classic Augustinian notion of sex inside of marriage, i.e., it’s not a sin provided you don’t enjoy it. Wesleyans are encouraged to cooperate and to enjoy it, as well as sex inside of marriage!
Local churches, like some military chaplaincy setting, have enough generic clerics, religious Mr. Good-wrench types great in technique and devoid of understanding. These leaders of self-licking lollipop churches dodge any reference on website or elsewhere to their theological pedigree, having time-warped directly from 80AD to Joe Blow’s living room twenty years ago where, with a group of faithful men they started the church, etc, etc. Sound familiar? Check the website of any of the plain vanilla God Box outlets that dot the landscape and you will hear the same script, names changed to protect the innocent.
As a Navy chaplain I was exceptionally grateful for the crisp theological identity The United Methodist Church has for those who take time to mine the gold. Our identity helps us to frame a traditional or contemporary order of worship that is more than throwing linguini on the wall but rather flows in a biblically and spiritually coherent manner. Our identity gives us a clear view of the Gospel, the essentials and the fact there also are non-essentials.
Being part of a church that rejects gender-based leadership, stood against slavery though it cost us half our membership and accepts the existence of dinosaurs is refreshing to know, and getting bigger in reaching those dubious about any sort of Christian religion. It was a huge advantage in ministry in the military and remains so in the parish. Be proud of the family and graciously share this part of our story!
Third, constantly prepare for the next assignment. Here the military has a huge advantage over the United Methodist clergy system. Military chaplains have career progression goals and steps clearly before them. At each level of rank the chaplain has continuing education to take if he or she wishes to serve in ministry in certain settings or at certain levels of rank. Clear metrics for expectation and performance are laid out. It is not a perfect system by any means but most military chaplains know what is expected of them if they wish to be a chaplain on an aircraft carrier, at a military service academy, or in a hospital or combat unit.
Frankly, the current denominational system is not there. Do you know the clear career path for fair consideration for appointment to a college church, a county seat church, a “big” church? Without clearly understood guidelines the scene can shift from what you know and have done to who you know and what you have done for who you know. That approach is a sure morale killer for clergy in any conference.
Clergy are required to take continuing education but without guidance on what specifically is needed if her or she wishes to be considered for a particular type of assignment. Some clergy feel ministry fulfillment working in education or in rural settings or in urban settings or among teens or older adults, but no ministry career pattern has been established to provide coherence for the evaluation or deployment of clergy with clear prerequisites for such assignments known. The notion that clergy must spend an entire ministry as a generalist is the kiss of death for long- term institutional effectiveness.
Prayerfully consider what kind of particular setting of ministry may best align with your spiritual gifts and be intentional about developing skills, abilities and knowledge the equip you for that task. This will enhance ministry in your current setting for you can better see your present place of service against a broader picture of potential futures.
Military chaplains, who are assigned for two to four years to one place before moving, are encouraged to invest completely and passionately in that place and people while they are there. Local church clergy can do likewise and thus avoid the tragic confusion of a healthy perspective on ministry career with the spiritual poison of ministry careerism.

These are three of literally a score of ways in which military chaplaincy can inform and strengthen clergy, churches and conferences in ministry. In the exchange of perspectives, ideas and encouragement all can find grounds for grace and hope in the shared slog toward the Kingdom.

Rev. Dr. Robert Phillips is a retired U.S. Navy Chaplain and directing pastor of Peoria First UMC.