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Home arrow Religion arrow Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces

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Personality, Motivation, Commitment

The differences between chaplains can be considerable and yet it is their shared qualities that give them special significance in the CF.

Chaplains I met shared a welcoming and open personality, a desire to do something 'beyond parish life,' and a commitment to serving military personnel and their families. While I did meet the odd chaplain with a very narrow sense of meaning and purpose, mostly in the context of spreading the Christian gospel, the majority of chaplains I met (hundreds in the course of my research) were extremely open to various religious perspectives and were highly respectful of other points of view. While Christian chaplains hold in common a commitment to Christian principles, there is by no means a consensus on how they understand or uphold those principles. For example, while one chaplain might describe homosexuality as 'an abomination in the sight of God,' another will understand Christianity to require acceptance and hospitality towards homosexuals in their faith community. In some cases, the chaplains may themselves be homosexual. One chaplain explained her openness to others' beliefs this way: 'I think people come to me because they know I have an inclusive outlook. I try to be very non-judgmental of people. People think that chaplains are one way... A lot of people come to talk to me and the first thing they say is, "I don't go to church, is that ok?" and I say, "Yes, that's ok." Our personal understanding of God can only be that - it's our personal understanding of God. If I believe a minister should be white and male, well, that might work for me, but it's not going to work for everybody else. It's arrogant to say that our understanding is the only way to know God. We can't pigeonhole God like that. I don't believe we've got the corner on God.' This openness and non-judgmental outlook is effective for dealing with those late modern individuals who may or may not be religious and are often highly reflexive, aware of religious alternatives, and doubtful of all-encompassing views of 'the truth'(Bauman 1992; Beck 1999; Bibby 2002; Giddens 1991; Hervieu-Leger 2000).

Like their openness to different ways of believing, another characteristic of chaplains that makes them credible to personnel is their love of military life. A chaplain trainer working at the chaplain school explained, 'You really have to love the military for this job. In hospitals and prisons, chaplains don't have the same attachment and loyalty to the institution. It's funny that a lot of people assume the military is about one type of person - conservative, ordered, rigid - but I've met a lot of eccentrics in here! Despite having to be in uniform every day, there are a lot of people here because it's not typical. There is a lot of variety and opportunity to do something different. There can be a lot of excitement and there's this sense of belonging to a really big family because of the camaraderie.' A reservist chaplain remarked, 'I like the lifestyle and I enjoy what I'm doing. This unit has a reputation as being pretty tough, spit-and-polish types. If you can't keep up, you get left behind. If I had joined any later [in life] I'd be too old to handle it. But I like to run, so one of the things I'm doing that I think will appeal to them and make me more credible is putting together a team for [a regional military road race]. We'll all run together as a group of Canadian soldiers. It's good for morale.' A female chaplain explained that the environment appealed to her skills and training and she liked the systemic organization and the order found in the chain of command. She added, laughing, 'And the uniform makes life really easy! It's great not having to decide what to wear every day!' She continued enthusiastically, saying, 'I was working as a civilian chaplain and a friend of mine was a reservist. There was a need for a chaplain for the cadets and I thought I would try it. When I arrived at the base, I told my driver, "You turn this van around right now! I'm going home!"' She laughed again. 'He said, "Sorry padre, you've got to report. That's my orders." So in I went. I was there for about two weeks with my eyes bugging out of my head and then I just fell in love with it.'

Many clergy said they joined the CF in order to challenge themselves both physically and spiritually. One minister told me, 'My parish was full of little old ladies - I never saw a young person there. I thought joining the military would give me an opportunity to grow and be challenged in having to work with young people and people of different faith groups.' Another explained, 'I was always interested in the chaplaincy because I wanted to do ministry but I wasn't interested in being the manager of a "spiritual country club" - a parish.' He smiled. 'I enlisted when I was 37. For a lot of CF Chaplains this is a second career that they come to when they've had enough of parish life.' He continued, saying, 'Many chaplains in the CF are refugees from the civilian ministry. It's an escape from the civilian churches. We are a bunch of renegades and rebels. I could not work in a civilian church - they're too comfortable, too safe, too easy. The CF is a ministry but it's also just "what I do" - it's who I am. I believe that what I do helps others, but most often it helps me.'

Along with their love for adventure and discipline, chaplains, like those they serve, have a profound sense of duty that accompanies their 'call to serve.' During a deployment a chaplain typically serves approximately 500 personnel, not including civilians and other military personnel who might work in a camp or at other operational locations.

While this ratio is a vast improvement over the British allowance of one chaplain for 20,000 personnel during the First World War, the normal rigours of the job and the changing operational environment place a lot of pressure on a chaplain during a tour of duty. Chaplains in operations manage chapels, perform religious duties, and provide pastoral care and counselling services. Along with their normal duties, chaplains in operations are often involved in establishing and facilitating civil-military relations with local leaders, civilians, and members of local non-governmental organizations working in the region. Further, they often organize and facilitate humanitarian aid projects that give personnel a positive focus during particularly difficult missions.

One Protestant Francophone chaplain explained the expansive nature of operational duties this way: 'When we're chaplains in the field, we're asked to be everything. To be a mental health specialist, a psychotherapist, a social worker, a spiritual guide. Everything!' Another padre said that sometimes psychologists and social workers are present to help personnel during a mission, 'but that is not always the case. Sometimes we don't have them. It depends where you are... I could be in a camp where all the medical and other services are, but I could be [an hour or more] from there somewhere in the field or somewhere where a [traumatic] event took place and I will have to face or meet the soldier who has been exposed to the event.' Another chaplain described his experiences in Afghanistan this way: 'You're living and working together as a team all the time. There is no more Monday to Friday stuff. You can be putting in 12- to 15-hour days and then you get hit at night and you're milling around at night with the guys, seeing what happened and if everyone's ok. For the first while, you're getting up out of interest - to see what's happened - you know, when a rocket hits the camp or something like that. But eventually, you start to wake up when there's an incident and then you just roll over and go back to sleep. You're not hurt so you just roll over and figure, if someone is hurt, they'll send someone to find you.'

Many chaplains I met demonstrated their motivation to be with personnel during difficult experiences. As operations in Afghanistan intensified, a chaplain who had served in a number of difficult and high-stress operations requested to be deployed there, saying, 'How can we prepare people if we don't know what they'll be facing? How can we give them the tools that they need if we don't know what they need? If I am going to care for my people and make them ready to be successful in this mission, then I have to go. I have to know what I'm talking about.' Another chaplain just returned from Afghanistan said, 'This is why we join - we don't want to sit around. We want - I want to experience what the soldiers are experiencing in [the mission environment]. I need to know what that cost is. You can look at these things academically, but we need to be there and really understand it. You need to live it.' A middle-aged Protestant chaplain said, 'When I read the roll call for guys we lost in Bosnia and again for Afghanistan, I knew over half of them. I want to be there with them, to take care of them. That's what chaplains do. Almost any chaplain would say the same thing.' Yet another padre explained, 'I can't wait for my next deployment!' He smiled, rubbing his hands together gleefully. 'Although it is hard on my family, I am ready to take care of people and help them through the situations they are facing. It is so important to be with people when they are vulnerable. I know how hard it can be for them because Canadians are so innocent - really innocent. They don't see or experience the hardship that goes on all over the world. So I am eager to be there for them to work beside them and encourage them. I am not afraid to go. I am not afraid to die. I am willing to be with those who are suffering and to stand beside those who are willing to stand for and defend freedom with their very lives; this is a sheer privilege for me. They are so innocent! They are so honourable! They could be home with their families, getting on with their lives, but for the sake of freedom, they go. This is what they believe in! They want to be there! Aside from the incentives, they really believe in the missions!'

Many military chaplains are tolerant of a variety of religious beliefs and enthusiastic about the military lifestyle. They are motivated to meet the different needs of personnel in order to help them in their duties and improve the quality of their lives. They are committed to putting members' needs before their own comforts. While many civilian clergy share some of these qualities, military chaplains' willingness to embrace diversity in a harsh secular environment that sometimes places them in mortal danger and takes them away from home for months at a time makes them truly unique among religious leaders.

 
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