Home Religion Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces
Presence, Trust, and Rapport
Another unique aspect of the military chaplains' role is that the central focus of their job is not performing religious rites and duties but simply their presence and relationships with personnel. Although they do perform religious rites, both chaplains and personnel made it clear to me that that is not the most significant aspect of a chaplain's role. Instead, what personnel appreciate most and what chaplains spend the majority of time cultivating is a 'Ministry of Presence.'
The mission of the CF chaplaincy is to 'support and enhance the operational effectiveness of the Canadian Forces by contributing to the moral and spiritual well-being of the members of the CF and their families' (DND 2008a). Chaplains are obligated by both the branch and Canadian law to 'accommodate the fundamental religious requirements of [CF] members' (DND 2003g), which includes offering opportunities for religious worship, performing the Christian sacraments, visiting the sick and in prison, offering pastoral counselling and crisis intervention, and advising on moral and ethical matters (DND 2008a). When I asked chaplains about their actual roles in the CF, they typically stated that, while their religious beliefs are what brought them to the role and what help them to fulfil it, their religious duties have very little to do with the services they are called upon to deliver. One retired minister said, 'In theory [chaplains are] there to look after the troops' spiritual needs but the troops don't really express a lot of spiritual needs.' While personnel do come to them to arrange their weddings, have their children baptized, or for funeral and remembrance services, one chaplain stated, 'Frankly, people don't come to us to talk about religion; they come to talk about life.' Another added, 'Very few appreciate [us] for religious services - 2%, maybe 5% value [chaplains] for that. Most people value us just for being there to care for them. Nobody else does that. We don't need to do anything; we just need to be there. We just need to be real.'
This lack of interest in traditionally religious services is not surprising if senior military personnel and chaplains are correct that many military personnel are 'passive Christians.' However, despite the nontraditional focus of chaplains' duties, all the chaplains I interviewed argued that they could not do their job without their religious beliefs. Further, they, as well as the military personnel they serve, argue that the role of the chaplain goes beyond being simply an alternative type of counsellor both because chaplains rely on religion to do their jobs and because personnel believe them to have special insights about spiritual and existential matters. Personnel I interviewed accorded an amazing level of trust and respect to the chaplains who shared in their experiences of military life both on base and during deployments. These aspects that set chaplains apart from social workers and non-religious counsellors are most evident in their Ministry of Presence.
Padre Lee Bezanson says, 'It means where the troops go, we go. When they are wet, tired and sleep-deprived, we are wet, tired and sleep-deprived. It's the foundation of the chaplaincy. It's essential for building trust' (deLaplante 2005). Chaplain Leslie Dawson explained it this way: 'If people know who you are and think you are approachable and credible, they turn to you very quickly during difficult times' (deLaplante 2005). Another chaplain defined it as 'being around and being available to the troops.' The Ministry of Presence, because it puts chaplains in the same environments and conditions as personnel, makes them credible sources of compassion and consolation who, unlike the mental health worker stationed in a base hospital or office, know exactly what a soldier, sailor, or air force member is experiencing. In this sense, as in the earlier description of chaplains who overcome the relativization of their calling by rooting themselves in beliefs and traditions bigger than themselves, chaplains resist the modern bureaucratic formulae of military society. Unlike social workers, who must conform to the routinized requirements of the modern military bureaucracy by keeping records and maintaining reports, chaplains are able to deal with problems in an idiosyncratic, open-ended, and personalized way that establishes them at once within and beyond the CF objectives for bureaucratic efficiency. Further, their closeness to and support of personnel suggest they may be an important resource for helping some people overcome the sense of alienation one can experience as a member of a large impersonal institution.
The military environment is a tough and exclusive world where any sign of weakness - physical, emotional, psychological - carries a heavy stigma (Benham Rennick 2005a). Personnel attest to this stigma and cite the chaplains as a positive alternative for help. One woman in the air force told me, 'One of my bosses was in Sierra Leone - he was so messed up when he came back he couldn't stand the sight of a uniform. A little child had died in his arms and he just couldn't cope. And there are always some of these "tough guys" saying things like, "We never should have sent him over there in the first place because he couldn't handle it" or "He's not a real man' " or even the people trying to be kind say things like, "Some guys are just more sensitive than others." They never accepted him back at work. There's a definite stigma attached to mental health issues. One of my senior officers said to me, "I heard you've been going to a social worker. You've got to be careful who you tell that to - just keep it to yourself." On paper the military says it's perfectly ok to get help whenever you need it, but then you get responses like that - it's totally different on the ground.'
A non-religious junior officer said, 'I'd definitely go to the chaplain over the social worker. There is real stigma attached. You have a problem if you talk to a social worker. We have to go see the social workers as part of our reintegration process when we return from a mission to assess if we have PTSD or anything. We say, "I went and passed my crazy test today." People talk this way about the social workers - I don't think anyone would choose to see a social worker over the padre. They send you to the social workers when you've failed, when you've let the military down, when you're a write-off, but the padre, well, he's just the padre - he's ...' she searched for the right word, 'nobody! Social workers and medical personnel are there when you're sick but the padre's there when your mum dies or when your baby gets sick. There's more of a sense that they're a normal part of your life. So many of us have grown up with these religious people in our lives - we've seen them forever, we're comfortable with them.'
A senior commander at the recruit school in St Jean described the heavy stigma of being labelled mentally unfit for duties and added that chaplains are very important for supporting personnel struggling with operational stress because 'None of [the soldiers] want to take "les escaliers de la hante," as it is called at St Jean, to see the social worker' (Mercier 2006).
This culture of toughness makes it difficult for some personnel to approach social workers and mental health practitioners because of the fear of stigmatization. Although chaplains receive pastoral care and counselling training that is similar to that of medical professionals, and some even work as professional counsellors or psychologists, their role as religious leaders sets them apart from health professionals as a non-stigmatized source of help. As a result, they frequently serve as the first line of crisis intervention. As one padre told me, 'Soldiers will get in touch with the chaplain for whatever kinds of crises they are going through. The first step they will take is to see the chaplain and talk about what they're going through, and then we decide who will work with them. It could be a social worker, it could be a psychologist, we may need to get them some financial support, we might contact the commander to deal with [career concerns]. We're there to intervene on all kinds of issues. It's a more holistic approach to the person but we're not there to do counselling for the long term. We have training in counselling, but we're not specialists in the field. It's part of the first line of crisis intervention. We see a variety of crises and then we dispatch them to where they should be.'
Another chaplain explained that people turn to the padres when they think, '9-1-1! Oh God help! They come because they're trapped, stuck in a bad situation.' One chaplain working as a trainer at the Chaplain School and Centre in Borden told me, 'In a day on a normal base you probably deal with five to seven [cases] on a very intense, personal level. They come into your office, close the door, and fall apart and that happens to you over and over again. We try to be intentional about separating ourselves from their problems and being objective. A big part of the chaplain school training is learning to deal with these situations. Chaplains are required to take the training even though they've already been trained in all aspects of chaplain care. Dysfunctional chaplains end up in a desk job or otherwise away from personnel they might bother. We give the training plan but after that, it's up to them to be successful.'
A number of chaplains made reference to the difficulty of resisting trying to solve everyone's problems. A priest explained, 'Many of us have a saviour mentality and that is very dangerous for us because it can swallow you whole and overwhelm you. From a Christian context, we have to remember that we're not the saviour, Jesus did the saving and we're not Jesus.' One pastoral associate remarked, 'I used to try to find solutions for all these problems but I have learned that you just can't. Most of the people who come to me are subordinates and they have no control over their situation so mostly I just act as a sounding board. I try very hard to show them that I see them as more than what they have done - just because they have done something bad that doesn't mean that's who they are.' Another young chaplain similarly remarked, 'I used to try to solve everything for people - they would come to me with a problem and I'd try to "fix them." I was overwhelmed. Now I have learned how to move back a little - now I just listen and try to direct them to take control more.'
Those who are able to resist taking responsibility for others' problems find that the strength of their role comes from their ability to be present with people and listen to their concerns. A reservist pastoral associate said, 'I just listen. People really just want to be heard. Today it's all about "me" - nobody is willing to listen to anyone any more. People just want someone to sit and let them talk and just to listen to them.' A Presbyterian minister said, 'As counsellors, we do nothing but listen. Each case is different. You journey with them - you can't try to have a quick fix or take responsibility for their problems, but you try to show them hope as we take the journey together. Whatever the people come up with, it's got to come from their own heart, their spiritual search has little to do with me, but I make the journey with them. People need to find their own way to recover and to change. It's fantastic to see that.'
A significant number of chaplains referred to their ability to 'just be present' in this way with people. I asked how a chaplain might deal with a person they disliked and one pastoral associate told me, 'Just for the record, I dislike no one!' She gave a hearty laugh and then became thoughtful. 'But if someone comes to me, a person I have difficulty with, I accord them the same respect as I do to others. Just because I have a difference of opinion with them doesn't change their right to be heard.' She continued, 'People want someone to listen to them. Initially they want a solution, but mostly they just want to be heard. Nobody listens to anyone anymore. Listening is central. There's so much chatter in our lives. There's so much interference - the TV is always on, there are video games or music. There's lots of talking but nobody listens. People want to talk and share but there's no place for it in our society so people feel lost and confused - like they're not validated and not respected. When I sit with someone, I want to give them that respect. People really just want to be heard.'
Another woman chaplain said, 'I remember when I was counselling one person I had this momentary wave of panic, "Oh my God! What do I do?!" but then I go with what the person is saying and I let them talk. Some of them have held back for so long that they just let it all flow out and you have to let them talk. Once that's done, I try to go back to key points that keep coming up to help them get some clarity on what's really bothering them about the situation.' In the same way that chaplains avoid the relativization of their calling by rooting themselves in religious tradition and belief, in their counselling role they exchange the impersonal nature of the faceless machinations of the military institution to engage people on a personal level. In these ways chaplains exist at once within and apart from the bureaucratic structures of modernity in the CF.
Along with the mundane pressures of life and crisis intervention, some people rely on chaplains to help them deal with the sense of alienation they experience as members of a large impersonal institution. Alienation in the military results from human individuals being employed as functionaries to meet military objectives. In such a scenario their personal needs and interests are subsumed by the goals of the institution. The result is that people suffer from depression and other mental health concerns. Symptoms of these include drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide attempts. Depression and mental health concerns in the military are significant, and for those who have served on difficult missions, can be two to three times as high as those found in Canadian civilian populations (DND 2008b; English 2000). 3 Further, although CF efforts in the last decade have brought alcohol-related problems to lower than the civilian average, it remains an area of concern for CF officials who put the 'lifetime prevalence of Alcoholism [at] . . . 8.5% for members of the regular forces and . . . 8.8% for reservists' (DND 2008b). Similarly, suicide as a response to depression and personal problems remains an area of concern for CF officials, particularly given that suicide is the leading cause of death in Canada for men aged 25 to 29 and 40 to 44. Statistics Canada reports that 'about 4% of Regular Force members reported having thoughts of suicide at some point in 2001, and almost 16% had considered it at some point during their lifetime' (Boddam and Ramsay 2005).4
A padre on a large army base said, 'We have a lot of people who attempt suicide. One officer called me one night when I was on duty to tell me he was planning to kill himself. So I went to his house. He said to me, "I'm going to commit suicide. I just said good night to my children and that's it." His wife was [there] screaming and crying and I said, "Thank you for calling," and I sat down and said, "Now go ahead." He said, "What?!?" and I said, "Go ahead. I'm here with you." . . . So he stops and he sits down and starts to think about [what] he is saying . . . he did not commit suicide and he got better - it took him a long time, but he got better and now he has a very rich, full life.'
He continued, explaining the reasons behind the member's suicidal thoughts: 'He had endured so much as a soldier, taking care of his men, and never wanting them to know he was suffering and stressed out. He didn't want them to think he was weak or that he couldn't handle his duties, so he just kept taking on more and more - "for the guys," "for the job." He was really tired and fed up but he didn't want to burden them with his struggles so he was ready to kill himself in order to protect them from having to see his weakness! Unbelievable!'
A female chaplain described a similar scenario. She told me this story: 'My first duty call was to the house of a man hanging by his tie. He killed himself because his wife took a girlfriend. She didn't care at all and moved in with her girlfriend right away. He had killed himself because of the shame he felt - he couldn't face his friends because of what she did.' Emile Durkheim calls this 'altruistic suicide,' a form of suicide he discovered to be most common among military personnel. He argued that it occurs when individuals becomes so alienated from their own identity that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to preserve the best interests of the group (1952).
One padre described his system of watching for signs of stress and depression in the regiment this way: 'When soldiers return from tour I have a practice of taking them for lunch somewhere off base. I don't wear uniform and we just talk. I usually have a pretty good sense of who needs more attention than others from their peers - who's had a good tour or a bad tour and I can keep my eye on them a little more. If any flags go up about the person's state of mind, I work with the family, the parents, and other officers to get the person out of onerous duties until they're doing better. The CF has gotten a lot smarter since Somalia about post-traumatic stress disorder and stress issues. There is one social worker for the brigade and she's really very good. We share whatever information we can on these matters to help the person along. The expectation of the padre is you may not be able to "fix" them but you're the one safe place people can go to. For example, one sergeant lost his licence [for drinking and driving]. I make sure he gets the help he needs, check in on him, ask how it's going, ask if what he's doing is helping, that kind of thing.'
A Francophone padre said, 'During la Revolution tranquille they took the church out of the system but they took all the social values with it. French people are left with a vacuum and the result is that we have one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. There are four suicides a day in Quebec.' In fact, suicide in Quebec is the highest of any province in Canada and is the leading cause of death of men between the ages of 25 and 29 in Canada (Canada Safety Council 2006; Moore 1999). He continued, 'So, there's an emptiness there about value and faith and where we are going. If you transpose that into the military world, well, military are not different from all the other people - they come here with all their values, with all their experiences of faith. But, I must say that, when they become military, the church is better perceived. A lot of military [personnel] who didn't attend church as civilians join the military and get in contact with a chaplain It changes their perspective of what church is, what religion is, what a chaplain is, what a priest is, what a pastor is. The chaplain and the priest take their full meaning there.'
Along with the fact that there is no stigma of weakness attached to talking to a chaplain, chaplains help people overcome feelings of alienation by remaining outside the normal military bureaucracy. As we already saw, they are not required to keep records of those who seek their counsel, and, in fact, they may maintain absolute confidentiality except in cases where 'there is a reasonable chance that [a person] may pose a threat to others or themselves, when there is indication of abuse of minors, and when ordered by a court of law' to share private information (DND 2003b, 3.4). Military health professionals and social workers are obligated to inform the chain of command about personnel issues that might limit a member's deployability. If a member is deemed to be unfit for service, he or she can be released. The unusual place that chaplains occupy outside of military bureaucracy and hierarchy makes the chaplain's office a 'safe place' for personnel to talk about their problems without fear of stigma from their peer group or reprisals that could limit their career. While interactions with health professionals and social workers are regulated, intentional, and focused on the objective of identifying a member's ability to meet CF requirements, interactions with the padres are private, open-ended, idiosyncratic, and 'invisible.'
One chaplain suggested that 'some of the social workers are kind of jealous because they don't have the privileges and the freedom we have. Everything that is said to them has to be recorded and kept on file and it can be subpoenaed, whereas I never keep notes or records. When people come to me, I don't write anything down. In fact, in my journal I code appointments and anything that could be incriminating so that it can't be subpoenaed into court. People know that.'
A chaplain working in one of the OTSSCs said, 'They know that when they come to see the chaplain, they won't be judged for anything and that we won't keep a file on them. You talk to the chaplain in the room [and] nobody has to know about it - it doesn't leave the room.' While both chaplains and personnel recognized the value of having a variety of support sources available, all but one of the CF personnel I interviewed, regardless of their spiritual perspectives, said they would seek the help of a padre over that of a social worker or health care professional.
Max Weber argued that the regulated nature of modern institutions and the objectives of bureaucratic institutions to develop and maintain efficiencies would alienate and enslave people as if trapped in an 'iron cage' (1958, 181). Military chaplains have found a way to circumvent the constricting and depersonalized nature of military bureaucracy by relying on their religious identity and their Ministry of Presence. Their rootedness in a religious tradition and value system that elevates people above goals for efficiency is what allows them to be effective in this role. One Francophone padre described it this way: 'It's not always easy to be the caregiver. It's a challenge ... I would call it a vocation. If you just do it as a job, maybe you're not in the right place, because it's more than a job. If you just do it to have a job, maybe you'd be better off as a social worker or a psychologist working nine-to-five and that's it. We're more than that. We need to be available almost any time and more so when we go in operations.' Another person described the role of the chaplain this way: 'The chaplains talk about the Ministry of Presence. If that's true, then our very presence is to be a ministry - like a sanctuary - that safe place where a person can feel [protected]. [In that case,] their perspective on religion doesn't really matter. It's all about mine! I have to look to my faith to let me do this job. You can't let this job just be about getting a paycheque and still care deeply about people.'
Unlike most occupations in the CF, chaplains have an amazing amount of freedom to move among the members. By being present, caring chaplains are able to establish a rapport with personnel that eventually leads to a relationship of trust. These three elements of presence, rapport, and trust are necessary for an effective Ministry of Presence. All of these exist in the chaplaincy in stark contrast to the results-oriented, planned activity of bureaucrats who focus on efficiency. An easy-going Francophone chaplain explained to me that 'You have to go to the people. You're not in your office waiting for the people - although that would be great!' He raised his bushy eyebrows at the novelty of the thought and chuckled. He continued, 'You're going to the people and when you're going to the people, you're going to the problems, but that is the strength of our ministry - we know the [personnel].'
A navy chaplain reported that personnel will come to him because 'I'm closer [than the social workers]. They know me. They see me every day. A drowning man looks for the closest person - it doesn't matter if they're not a lifeguard. Social workers are farther back than we are. If they were on the front line working with and living with the personnel, [personnel] might go there, but we're with them all the time, they know us, and so they come to us. It's a natural step - a natural reach.'
Another chaplain working on a ship said, 'I would say people in the military think about religion more than people on civvie street5 because they know the padres and they see us - we're always around. We're known as the "nice people" on base. Even when I go into the coffee shop [outside the base], civilians come up and want to chat with me - they know I'm a chaplain by my uniform.'
An earnest female Francophone chaplain explained, 'You have to be visible and you have to be deliberate. I intentionally go and meet people I will be working with and I tell them, "I am the chaplain and I will be working with you"; especially the CO [commanding officer] and then the troops. I go to the COs first because that's who I would be dealing with if any problems come up with the personnel and if they don't know me it's going to be harder for them to hear what I have to say.'
An Anglican minister on a large army base explained, 'I do a lot of what I call "loitering with intent"-that is, I make myself available, I hang around where people can see me and where it would be easy for them to approach me if they want. People will talk to you and tell you what's going on if they know you and they trust you. If they trust you! But you have to be there for that. You have to be visible and you have to earn that trust and be willing to maintain it. It's something you really have to work at. If troops know they can confide in you without breaking confidence, without losing face with their peers, and without being viewed as a weakling, they'll talk to you.' He observed, 'People have a tendency to project their impressions of the overall religious institution onto us as representatives of that institution. You can't get around that and you can't let yourself be paralysed by it. You have to be willing to be with people despite that disconnect. You just have to accept that they might see you that way and then work to change it!'
A captain remarked, 'It's not about "scoring points for Jesus." I tell people who I am and my religious background, but I also let them know I'm a comrade and I'm here for them and I'm interested in them. I think it's probably harder for personnel today to understand what the padre does than it was 40 years ago when ministers and priests were an everyday part of life and you grew up with them in your community. Now you have to work harder at the outset about what you do as a padre. I can be up front about being a member of organized religion, but I make it clear that I'm first and foremost there to serve them. I tell them that the only church service they're likely to be at without their permission is their funeral and I'd rather not be at that - they understand that.'
A female chaplain serving on an air force base concurred: 'People will talk to me if they know me and see me, and it has to be on their turf. So I go out in the smoking areas, the dining area, and the sports areas where people are, so they can put a face with the name. Then, when I'm in the smoking area, some soldier will begin to talk to me about the trouble he's having in his marriage and that's when we can go off and chat. Once they know me, there's no stigma attached to talking to me - they don't have to come to me, I go to them. By the time I left my last base, I was counselling at least five people a day who would just drop in to chat about their lives. It didn't matter their rank, I'd see privates, COs, captains, colonels - all the ranks came in. When I see that happening, I know I'm doing something right.'
Chaplains find the rapport between them and the personnel comes after a period of persistent involvement in the life of the troops. When I asked one newly recruited chaplain if people were willing to come see him, he explained how he was learning to fit into the system: 'They're starting to... it's taken a while. When I first started I went to some senior chaplains for advice and they all said, "If they see you, they'll talk to you. If they don't see you, they won't." So I joined in with a lot of their activities - rucksack marches carrying these 100-pound packs, winter camping, going to the rifle range, helping unload trucks. It gives you credibility when you're out there doing things with them and you're not afraid to get dirty. Some soldiers probably think I'm a waste of space because I don't carry a gun but I think I've been able to help a lot of them.' Another congenial padre said, 'It always helps to have a good laugh! When I approach people, the first thing I do is look for an opportunity to laugh at myself. You can't remain uptight and defensive when you're having a good laugh together. You have to work through the projections others impose on you as a chaplain and one way to do that is to laugh because, really, we humans are such foolish creatures!'
Other chaplains echoed this willingness to 'play the fool' and allow themselves to be laughed at, a role not welcomed by other military personnel. One young female chaplain described her participation in a recreation day event requiring her team to repeatedly don and doff equipment in a relay procession. Each member would put on a new piece of equipment, complete the relay, remove the equipment, and pass it to the next person, who would then add a piece of equipment for their turn. The chaplain went last and described a hilarious scenario of her dressing in full combat gear, quickly finding a suitable ('and fair! I didn't want to cheat!') substitute for the rifle she could not carry, and attempting to complete the relay only to collapse on the field during the home stretch. She described how none of the personnel in her unit could even come to her assistance because they were laughing so hard, and she, trapped in all her gear and completely out of breath, was unable to 'croak for help.' She said, 'If chaplains are going to be effective, they have to be present most of all. Participation is the key thing. People have to see them and know who they are. There are lots of opportunities to be with the personnel - in [physical training], at special events, on training excursions, you need to interact and make yourself known equally to the COs and the officers and the regular members. And you need to be a part of play time and have some fun with people - they need to see you as human. Be real, don't be on a pedestal, be human.' The result of her willingness to 'be real' with the people she serves is a genuinely warm rapport.
She described how, after being on a mission or an assignment away from home, 'I love going home to my unit and they're happy to see me. There's a real sense that I am their chaplain and it really feels like home. They call me about all kinds of stuff all the time - even though they have all these civvie [civilian] options. We have a really good rapport. It's a great experience. They know that the answers I give them will be based on my Christian faith but they ask me anyway because they know I'm not going to shove it down their throats. I do whatever is in my power to help them if I can.'
Another evangelical padre, who had served during a particularly difficult operation, said, 'I really did feel loved and appreciated on that mission by command and personnel. I'd go out of the camp for a few days and people would say, "Boy, I really missed you!" and that really helped. You know your role is important when people are saying that to you.'
Their rootedness in a tradition that elevates human interests above corporate goals, along with unique freedoms that place them outside the bureaucratic and hierarchical elements of the CF, establishes chaplains as an important intermediary between the personal needs of members and the institutional goals of the organization. Chaplains make efforts to be present with personnel and establish trusting relationships by working alongside them and joining in many of their activities and training programs. Their rapport with personnel and the fact that chaplains are not health care workers establish the padres as a viable source of care and consolation in the face of the stress and hardship inherent in military life. Chaplains are able to maintain one foot in the efficiency- focused bureaucratic hierarchy of the military and the other foot in the individualized, community-based environment of loosely defined personal relationships with military personnel. This ability to straddle the two worlds is based on their religious beliefs that transcend military objectives. Their intermediary role makes them an important resource for unlocking the 'iron cage' of modernity and helping individuals to overcome the alienating effects of a being a member of a large bureaucratic institution such as the CF.
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