New Horizons

The OPC's Chaplaincy Ministry

Robert B. Needham

The Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel was established by the 64th General Assembly in 1997. The task of the ordained officers on that committee is to represent Orthodox Presbyterian chaplains and other OP interests on the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel (the Joint Commission). Previously, the General Assembly simply elected men to serve on that interdenominational commission for three-year terms, without any committee standing.

In order for a minister (of any denomination) to serve as a chaplain in the United States Armed Forces, he must first be endorsed (that is, formally approved and accepted for military service) by his sending church. In the case of the OPC, this is done by a minister's presbytery. Then he must be endorsed by an ecclesiastical body that has been approved by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, an agency of the Department of Defence, to act in that capacity. Chaplains are commissioned by the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. Navy chaplains also serve with the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.

The Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel was established in 1979 by the Presbyterian Church in America. The OPC was invited to join as a full voting member, along with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, North America (also known as "the Covenanters"). Seasoned PCA pastor William B. Leonard, Jr., who had been a Navy chaplain, was chosen to be the first executive director. He served faithfully in that capacity for many years.

In the early years of our denomination, the only OP chaplains were Lynne Wade (Army, 1941–1950; Navy, 1950–1956) and John Betzold (Army, 1944–73). They were accepted by the Armed Forces with the endorsement of their presbyteries. But by the time of the formation of the Joint Commission, simple presbytery endorsement was no longer sufficient.

Once an ordained minister has been endorsed by his presbytery for military ministry, that endorsement is forwarded to the Joint Commission. Dave Peterson, a PCA minister who is currently the executive director, then presents the endorsement to the office of the Chief of Chaplains of the service in which the candidate is interested. Another way to describe this process is that the Joint Commission represents the endorsed candidate to the desired military service's Chaplains Corps. It then becomes the responsibility of that Chaplains Corps' Chief of Chaplains to accept or reject that candidate.

However, initial endorsement is not the only service provided by the Joint Commission for our commissioned chaplains. The Joint Commission continues to represent, support, and oversee each chaplain for his entire career in the military, whether as a reservist or as a regularly commissioned officer. This is done, not only for his own protection, but also on behalf of his endorsing and sending presbytery.

The Joint Commission (and our Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel) oversees all chaplains on active and reserve duty, maintains as close a relationship with the chaplain's presbytery as possible (and urges chaplains to do so, even when deployed), and intervenes with his command on his behalf, if necessary. One reason for this is that each chaplain represents his church, with its theological distinctives, to the military as long as he serves in the capacity of a chaplain.

It is important to remember that the military services do not provide ministry to any military personnel. Recognized churches do. This is a crucial distinction that is not always well understood. When I was on active duty, occasionally someone would ask me if there was a "Navy religion" and would want to know if I had attended a school to learn that!

The Work of the Committee on Chaplains

Years ago, the OPC had few military chaplains, and the three GA representatives elected to the Joint Commission managed to maintain a workable interface between the OPC, the Joint Commission, and our chaplains. But that arrangement was not systematic, or even well defined, in terms of the General Assembly's own responsibilities to our OP chaplains. By the 1990s, it had become apparent that the formation of a GA standing committee was needed to oversee the OP ministers serving as chaplains, in the same manner as the Committee on Foreign Missions oversees our foreign missionaries.

The Lord had so blessed the Joint Commission with an increase in the number of chaplains, that one of the obvious needs recognized by our General Assembly was for regularized and defined oversight of OP chaplains alongside the oversight provided by the executive director and the two assistant directors of the Commission, all of whom are PCA ministers. To put it another way, our GA standing committee is concerned only with OP chaplains and other OP military personnel. This is not to suggest that the three directors of the Joint Commission do not serve well. Indeed, they do a superb job of supporting all their chaplains on active duty—better, in fact, than the support effort of most denominations. However, as there are over two hundred Joint Commission chaplains altogether, there are times when an OP chaplain needs support specifically from the OP members of the Joint Commission. Hence, our standing committee.

As a standing committee, the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel is permanent. It reports yearly to each general assembly. The Assembly elects the members of the committee.

In the OPC, for interesting historical reasons, we almost never establish or authorize "commissions" to do the work of the church. Commissions are different from committees, in that they have greater authority than committees to act on behalf of the body they represent. But we are members of an interdenominational commission. The reason for this rather unusual situation is that the commission must be able to act in an official capacity on behalf of a chaplain at any time of the year, representing not only him, but his endorsing denomination, to his military service. The United States Army, Navy, and Air Force simply cannot wait for the General Assembly's annual meeting to deal with chaplaincy matters.

When a chaplain experiences any significant difficulty with his parent (or other) command, he may well need representation, counsel, and even protection, of a nature that can be furnished only by the Joint Commission. And, in the case of OP chaplains, it is important that the members of the standing committee (all of whom have had some military service or are presently still serving) communicate to our chaplains and other military members that we are able and willing to help them in time of need.

Back in the 1980s, the General Assembly, after a three-year effort, established a policy that the OPC would not permit our chaplains to hold, or be forced to hold, joint worship services with a chaplain, or chaplains, from another denomination that would not meet our criteria for ordination. This provided significant protection for our chaplains in case they are ever pressured by someone senior to them to hold a joint worship service with, for example, a female chaplain or a Mormon chaplain.

Line and staff officers who are senior to a chaplain, if shown that his theological restrictions do indeed come from the church that endorsed him (and are not simply idiosyncratic), are often eager to support and endorse the labors—and distinctives—of the particular chaplain he has been assigned.

For example, some Lutheran and Baptist denominations do not permit their chaplains to serve communion to anyone who is not a communicant member of their own church body. Such denominational restrictions on their endorsed chaplains have been accepted for many years in the military services.

What You Can Do

What value can the information in this article have for you, if you are a member of an OP congregation and are interested in ministry to people serving in the Armed Forces?

First, pray earnestly for all OP members who serve in one of the military services of this country. If you want details about the remarkable number of OP folks faithfully serving our country in some military capacity, check the OPC website (www.opc.org/chaplain/index.html). It lists almost every serving member of the OPC, as well as suggested specific petitions.

Second, pray for those who serve on the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel and on the Joint Commission. Pray in particular that God would bless our efforts to support and protect the constitutionally established right of our chaplains to provide ministry in the sometimes difficult, pluralistic environment of the military.

Third, please read the annual report of this standing committee in each year's GA Minutes. If you do so, you will be better able to understand and pray for the remarkable avenue for ministry and missions afforded our church within the United States Armed Forces.

The author, a former Navy chaplain, is pastor of New Hope OPC in Hanford, Calif., and a member of the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2007.

Return to Formatted Page