Navy chaplains play a vital role in the lives of sailors. The chaplain on board a Navy ship functions much like a pastor in a church. Chaplains, however, counsel and comfort people of all faiths.
The chaplain on board a Navy ship functions much like a pastor in a church. Chaplains, however, counsel and comfort people of all faiths.
This kind of pluralistic ministry challenges every chaplain. We are taught to care for all, provide for our own faith group, and facilitate the practice of other faith groups. Today’s Navy chaplains represent three major faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
A single Navy chaplain cannot possibly meet the needs of every sailor, so we refer to ourselves collectively as the Chaplain Corps. We work together in a spirit of cooperation without compromise in order to meet the diverse spiritual needs of today’s sailors. We accomplish this partially by coordinating our ministries within a battle group, which consists of one aircraft carrier, two cruisers and several destroyers and frigates.
Six chaplains are assigned to various ships throughout the battle group. There are three chaplains assigned to the aircraft carrier, one chaplain assigned to each cruiser, and one “destroyer squadron” chaplain. The Command Chaplain on the aircraft carrier is the senior chaplain afloat and coordinates ministry to the entire battle group.
If one of the destroyers or frigates has not had a chaplain visit in a few weeks, the senior chaplain will coordinate a “Holy Helo.” The “Holy Helo” is a helicopter tasked with carrying a chaplain from one ship to another. This chaplain will usually conduct a worship service for the crew and visit the ship’s workspaces, offering pastoral care and counseling. The destroyer squadron chaplain is primarily responsible for this ministry, although the other five chaplains in the battle group may be asked to participate.
The ships in the battle group experience a rich and varied religious ministries program.
For example, on board my cruiser, I lead two Protestant worship services and facilitate a lay-led Catholic service every Sunday when we are underway. I also conduct a weekly Bible study and weekday prayer times. These meetings provide sailors with multiple opportunities to express their faith. My favorite part of the day is the evening prayer, when I am allowed to share a thought and a prayer with the entire crew.
I also provide extensive counseling to the crew. I remind sailors up front that I am not a professional counselor, but that I can act as a supportive figure in their lives, as well as a referral agent when the situation requires further help. Chaplains offer sailors the highest confidentiality, so Navy chaplains are able to provide a safe place for sailors to wrestle with life’s struggles.
One of the unique ministries offered by the Navy Chaplain Corps is CREDO. CREDO is a retreat-based ministry with the Personal Growth Weekend (PGR) as the cornerstone. The PGR offers individuals the opportunity to experience a loving and supportive community where each person is valued.
Most people leave their PGR feeling restored, renewed and refreshed. CREDO also offers other retreats, such as men’s and women’s retreats, family retreats, the Marriage Enrichment Retreat, and the Rediscovering Your Inner Child Retreat.
The ministry of the Navy chaplain is much like that of a pastor. We lovingly care for and support those we serve by trying to meet their spiritual needs. The real difference is the pluralistic nature of the ministry.
Navy Chaplains must creatively learn to care for every person—despite religious preference—in the Navy.
Bennett C. Sandford is a chaplain in the United States Navy.