Dear Federal Chaplains,
As I travel throughout this episcopacy and talk with many of you, a frequent issue that comes up in conversation pertains to our identity in a world that is variously described as post-modern or post-Christian. I am sure that it comes as no surprise to any of you that the landscape in which we do our vocational bidding has become increasingly a schizoid-type: Christian evangelical or fundamentalist, and at the same time ecumenically diverse with the appearance of so many non-traditional religious groups. Regarding the latter extreme, as recently as 15-20 years ago we were totally unfamiliar with these folks who range from Muslims and Buddhists to atheists and free thinkers. Every time I hear the World War II story of the four chaplains who sacrificed their lives aboard the USAT Dorchester so others might take their places in the lifeboats and live, I am aware of just how much the makeup of our federal chaplaincies has changed since that 1943 episode of courage and bravery. At the time the four chaplains were fairly representative of the US Army Chaplain Corps: two Protestants, one Roman Catholic and one Rabbi. Today such a mix will not even come close to mirroring the composition of chaplaincy in the Army or the larger federal landscape of religious ministry.
No longer can we take for granted that because you are clergy of The Episcopal Church that you will garner respect from your colleagues and peers, or even be given a rightful place in the federal organizations in which you serve. On occasion quite the contrary is true. I am aware that there is a continuous perception that Episcopal clergy have had their season of favor, and that now it is time for you to step aside – step back – and allow others to have their rightful share of leadership positions and promotions.
Yes, we are challenged to establish our identity and to act professionally in a manner that is in accord with who we are. In other words, our being counts! If you will look at the call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) I think you can see the prototype for spiritual and vocational identity. First, Isaiah was challenged to distinguish between his less than righteous being and God’s holiness. Next Isaiah was drawn into a phase of becoming, or transformation when the searing hot coal from God touched his mouth. Finally, Isaiah was ready to begin doing when he said he was willing and ready to be sent forth for God. Being, becoming, and doing are the three primary spiritual components that form our identity. Though at times you are evangelists, and at times you are ecumenists, always you are Christian priests of the church who are called by your God into this unique ministry.
Unfortunately we do not have the luxury of time to wait around to go through a process of clarifying our identity prior to going out to do the work God has given us to do. In aviation the maxim is always, “First fly the airplane,” for if you don’t, nothing else matters. Yet, in the midst of the many challenges to your identity and your rightful place in the organization, there is something you can do. This is my challenge to you. It is always easy to carry out the tasks of priestly vocation from the perspective of a support plan. Indeed, you are called to support the service members, veterans and inmates committed to your charge. However, the support plan is never the end of the day. At best any ministry support plan must be a component of a larger missional plan or strategy. Today one of the most challenging and promising theological discussions is about how the church will develop a missional theology and then act accordingly to incarnate that theology.
Regardless of what others want to think or say about your rights or entitlements, your ministry must never be based in such diversionary ideas. Your ministry is based in the competence that God has created through the transformational work God has done in your lives. In and through your pastoral and sacramental presence you have some of the most unique and broadly focused capabilities within the federal chaplaincies. Thank you for being who you are, for allowing God’s transformational work in your life, and for doing the priestly ministry you do. In ways you’ll never know, you are making a significant difference in the lives of the men and women whom you touch.