The Responsibilities of an Army Chaplain

Jonathan C. Gibbs III

Chaplains in the U.S. Army fulfill a dual role as clergy and staff officers. As clergy, they provide religious ministry to the members of the command to which they are assigned. They do this either directly, by performing ministry functions themselves, or indirectly, by arranging for others to perform them. Chaplains provide ministry directly according to the requirements, practices, and traditions of their own distinctive faith groups. They provide ministry indirectly by coordinating with other chaplains, lay leaders, or civilian clergy to perform ministry functions to meet the religious needs of soldiers of faith groups other than their own.

Chaplains as Staff Officers

Chaplains serve on both the personal and the special staffs of the commander. As a staff officer, one of the chaplain's most important functions is to provide professional advice and counsel to the commander on religious, moral, and ethical issues. The chaplain is expected to report regularly to the commander on the spiritual, ethical, and moral health of the command, including the humanitarian aspects of command policies, leadership practices, and management systems.

Army regulations specifically designate the chaplain as the staff officer responsible for conducting the commander's program for moral leadership training. Moral leadership training is an important tool available to the commander to address the moral, social, ethical, and spiritual questions that affect the command climate and the lives of all assigned personnel.

Moral and Ethical Instruction

I am currently assigned to the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I serve as an instructor in military leadership and ethics. This assignment is an extension of the staff function of advising the commander on moral and ethical issues. I teach classes on Army leadership doctrine, professional ethics, ethical decision making, and ethical behavior in combat. Army doctrine is mainly focused on the legal and regulatory standards that guide professional military conduct. However, it is impossible to properly understand the American view of military ethics apart from an awareness of the moral and ultimately religious presuppositions that lie behind our national and Army values.

All soldiers, upon commissioning or enlistment, swear an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the Unites States against all enemies foreign and domestic." This carries with it a moral obligation to uphold the essential values upon which the Constitution is based and which it guarantees. The principle of respect for basic human rights even in war, which comes from this obligation, finds its basis in the patently Christian religious belief that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

Just and Unjust War

The soldierly virtues of "duty-honor-country," which we teach to every soldier, do not exist in a moral vacuum. They arise from a particular view of personal virtue that is firmly grounded in the ethical framework of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. As an instructor, my goal is not only to present doctrine, but also to encourage my students to examine the religious and moral foundation upon which it is based. Many of my students are surprised to learn, for instance, that the modern "Law of War," which regulates behavior in combat, according to the Geneva and Hague Conventions, finds its roots in the "just war" tradition first articulated by Christian theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

The Infantry School provides professional military education for all officers and noncommissioned officers in the Army's primary combat arms branch. Each year I teach approximately 2,000 officers who come here for a variety of courses. My students include officer candidates attending the Officer Candidate School, a selection course for enlisted soldiers being considered for commissioning as officers, as well as lieutenants and captains in the Infantry Officer Basic and Career Courses.

The history of the twentieth century has shown with devastating clarity how dangerous tactical and technical proficiency can be in the absence of an informed moral conscience and adherence to clear ethical guidelines for professional military conduct. For the young junior officers whom I teach, instruction focuses on the importance of personal ethical conduct as a leader, the necessity of professional values in military decision making, and the critical role that moral and honorable character plays in the leadership process. I consider it a serious responsibility to be charged with teaching these vitally important subjects, knowing that my classes contain the future general officers of the U.S. Army of the twenty-first century.

Chaplain Ministry

In addition to my teaching duties, I conduct more conventional chaplain ministry in a number of ways. I provide religious support coverage to the staff and faculty members of the Instructional Directorate at the School. We have a regular program of religious events, including quarterly prayer breakfasts, praise and testimony lunches, and weekly men's and women's lunchtime Bible study groups.

I also have a booming literature ministry in the Schoolhouse. Last year I gave out over 1,200 copies of John Blanchard's evangelistic booklet Ultimate Questions, 1,500 New Testaments, and 4,800 copies of the devotional booklet Daily Bread.

Outside the School, I serve as copastor for the main post chapel, where I preach weekly at one of the two services we conduct every Sunday for a congregation of about 350. The congregation is a wonderful mix of Army retirees and active-duty families, including staff and faculty members from the School, students, and many of the installation's senior staff officers and commanders. Our garrison commander, who is the son of Presbyterian missionaries to China, attends with his family and sings in our choir. Our Children's Church program regularly draws twenty-five to thirty children between the ages of four and seven every Sunday morning. We also have youth groups for junior and senior highs that meet on Sunday evenings.

Meeting Jesus in the Air

In my spare time, I assist another chaplain in covering the U.S. Army Airborne School, which trains personnel from all four military services in basic military parachuting. The most well-attended event we conduct is undoubtedly the Airborne Prayer Breakfast, which we provide every week for students on the morning of their first parachute jump. This is a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the gospel to people suddenly contemplating what it really means to be "airborne"!

When I jump with the students, I also have the opportunity to visit and pray with many of them before we load the planes and take off. Other than being shot at in combat, few things have the ability to concentrate the mind so powerfully on the reality of one's mortality and the character of one's faith as stepping out of an airplane going 135 mph at 1,200 feet above ground level!

God has given me a wonderfully challenging and varied ministry here at Fort Benning. I praise him for the open door for the gospel that exists here and for the opportunity to minister his Word.

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