What Family Ministers Share With & Can Learn From Military Chaplains?

By John Van Epp, PhD

It all began around ten years ago when Chaplain Colonel Bloomstrom from the Chief of Chaplains office approached my booth at a conference and ordered 50 of my relationship courses for chaplains to teach. Since that first encounter, I have had the incredible honor of personally training over 3,000 chaplains in my courses by traveling to most of the Army bases across this country and overseas. This has been a journey of inspiration as I have developed many close relationships with these chaplains and their families, listened to their stories of sacrifice, dedication, and love for fellow soldiers, and watched them care for the spiritual, personal, and relational needs of others. Let me take this opportunity to brag about them.

A typical chaplain’s closet is filled with many hats.
• The administrative hats of organizing activities, retreats and services;writing contracts, reports, and budgets; delegating to and managing their assistants and subordinates; and working under the authority of constantly changing superiors.
• The educational hats of taking annual classes, gaining certifications; teaching classes and conducting retreats related to spirituality, faith, marriage, child-rearing, dating and mate-choice; preparing devotionals and sermons, and running worship centers and services.
• The military hats of daily PT (physical training), deployments, PCS (Permanent Change of Station) every two or three years, promotions, battle wounds and deaths (chaplains conduct most of the services and family care for those who have lost their lives), and working within the chain of command.
• Finally, there is the counseling hat which deals with marriage preparation, helping service men and women with countless personal and marital struggles, healing broken trust, post-traumatic stress, and dealing with loss. Even this list hardly does credit for this most noble profession.

But what has moved me much more than their expansive work load is their expansive hearts. I have yet to meet a chaplain who was not driven by love, compassion, and sacrifice. I am sure there must be some out there who have lost this vision, but they must be few and far between because I have only come across those who genuinely care about those they serve.

One of my common experiences is to hear chaplains talk about conducting funeral services for those who lost their lives in battle, and the heart-wrenching task of caring for their spouses and families. Several months ago, I was teaching my programs to new chaplains in the Basic Course at Fort Jackson. An announcement was made that a convoy in Iraq had been attacked and among those killed was an Army Chaplain – the first lost in this war. There was an immediate hush as they interrupted our class to pray for the families involved. At lunch I spoke with numerous staff about this loss including the director of the basic course, and each one showed deep emotion as their eyes welled-up with tears.

On many other occasions I have had similar experiences with other chaplains. It usually would begin with a chaplain looking at me and saying something like, “We lost six from the 101st last week.” This comment would be followed by a long, silent stare as he fought back his emotions. I would have thought that “compassion fatigue” would have set in years earlier for some of these veteran chaplains; but for most, their hearts remain soft an receptive to the pain of those to whom they minister.

I am most familiar, though, with the Strong Bonds Program that the Army Chaplaincy initiated some ten years ago. Their mission is “to provide programs in weekend retreat settings that will strengthen relationships in marriage, family, and dating (for singles).” The Chief of Chaplains established the Strong Bonds Program and provided funding in order to improve the quality of family relationships among their soldiers.Chaplains become trained and certified in a number
of relationship courses and then take single soldiers, married couples, or entire families on weekend retreats and teach them one of these programs over the course of three days. The Strong Bonds budget provides the funding for the course materials, the lodging, any necessary childcare, and
the transportation. The weekend is balanced between class time and free time for relaxing, recharging, and reflecting on what they learn.

I have listened to hundreds of chaplains as they excitedly described these retreats and the positive impact they have had on dating soldiers, married couples, and families. The common denominator between these many stories has not been the specific programs taught, or the locations of the retreats, or even the activities of the weekend. Rather, it has been the love of the chaplains for the well-being of the soldiers and their families under their care.

Chaplains long to see better dating practices, stronger marriages, and happier families and have established a new “social structure” in their military culture to facilitate preventative programs in relationship education. Our society at large can learn much from this micro-society for there is a tremendous need to create social structures where individuals and couples take relationship courses long before the need for remedial intervention.

In fact, the Church should also consider following the example of the Army Chaplains and fund classes and retreats to their communities in non-church settings that specifically address the needs of dating, marriage, and family life.

Most of the courses used in the Strong Bonds Program have secular and Christian versions which allow chaplains to teach the secular version to those who would not usually attend a religious retreat in order to both benefit their relationships and to provide a bridge of credibility for the Chaplaincy. In the same way, Churches could provide these courses which would benefit the community by promoting Christian principles on dating and marriage in practical and non-religious ways while also providing an outreach to unchurched people.

The military has been a leader in many advances that have now become normalized in our public sector – satellite systems, the Internet, and energy to name a few. The Army Chaplaincy has now established an example for us to follow: creating new social and organizational structures where relationship classes are taught throughout the year in both Christian and secular settings in order to promote healthy dating practices, stronger marriages, and happier families.