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The Role of a Chaplain

Chaplain's Branch BannerOne of the extra jobs I have accepted in the recent past is supervising a working group of chaplains looking at the health of the Chaplains Branch. That obviously touches issues such as recruiting, training and retention, but also in the current political climate, the whole question of the need for chaplains of other faiths and how to integrate them into the chaplain’s branch. On examination we found there was a lack of a clear definition of the role of chaplain in this new multi-faith world. My mentor, Chaplain Murray Earl, who is now retired, suggests that it starts with simply “being there” but it must be more than that, and goes on to suggest that “military chaplaincy is truth, through personality via relationships over time” (Expository Times, Vol 124,No.2, Nov 2012).

I’m still trying to work out what that means after almost 17 years as a chaplain (slow learner) but with some help from Murray, it seems to me that a chaplain of any faith needs to grapple with these four elements to be effective. Before you stop reading thinking that this is just about chaplains – I believe these same four items are important to ANY member of the military – especially leaders!
TRUTH! This is not easy to define but for me it is about openness and honesty, showing integrity and character, having the courage to do what is right and put into practice the Air force values we say we agree with. Any chaplain, no matter what their faith background needs to be truthful! Does your life and example show truth and integrity?
PERSONALITY! We are all unique, we all have our quirks and the military allows for us to express that, so no two chaplains will be the “same”. Murray in the above article suggests that also is the same for command and “how a particular commander uses his or her personality bears greatly on the effectiveness of the Squadron”. I suspect that chaplains from a Jewish or Muslim background will bring a new dynamic of personality to the branch. How are you using your personality?
RELATIONSHIPS! The military by its nature is hierarchical, yet history has shown that “relationships are critical to the military ethos and effective outcomes” (Murray Earl). As chaplains, we do not have command authority so we are much more dependent on good working relationships to have an influence. I suspect there may be some prejudice to the introduction of other faith chaplains, but they can only be effective if we accept them for who they are and enter into meaningful relationships with them. Do you allow your own prejudices to affect how you relate to others in your work environment?
TIME! There are no quick fixes to the shortage of chaplains or the training of chaplains or the introduction of other faith chaplains. All these will take time, and to rush the process will result in disaster. Last year we saw the introduction of the first Pentecostal Chaplain (from the Australian Christian Church) to the Permanent Air Force, the first Jewish Chaplain to the RAAF Specialist Reserve and this week we saw the appointment of “Imam Mohamadu Nawaz Saleem who will work with the Muslim community and other members of the RACS in providing advice on the religious and spiritual wellbeing of all members of the ADF”, (Ministerial Press release 05 Jun 15). Who knows what any of that will mean over time, but let us not be too quick to make judgments?
Maybe you need to take some time to consider your own area of responsibility and your health regarding truth, personality, relationships and time.

Padre Ian Whitley AM