MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Religious ministers from more than 100 denominations and faith groups comprise the Chaplain Corps. They come from all different walks of life. While some religions and denominations carry similarities, no two chaplains are alike.
Chaplains call the military home, just like the next Marine or sailor, but they also answer to a higher calling. They work with skills gained only through years of experience and education. But their military specialty is not beyond the reach of those who wish to join the chaplaincy; it just takes a little longer.
Before becoming a chaplain, an applicant must attain a bachelor’s and master’s degree and spend time in ministry. While such a feat of time and dedication may appear daunting, it can be accomplished with a little perseverance.
A few chaplains, like lieutenants Michael A. Taylor and Karen J. Rector served as enlisted Navy before moving on to college and returning as chaplains.
When Rector, Headquarters Battalion chaplain, realized everything she had to do before becoming a chaplain, it “scared the daylights” out of her, she said. She spent four years as a sailor before returning to finish college. It took her 10 years including her time in the military to finish her education for chaplaincy.
“I knew what I needed to do to become a chaplain,” she said. “I made the decision and I knew it was the right one. I knew I had to give up a lot of things, like time. I knew nothing was going to stop me from doing this.”
Each chaplain had a different life before putting on a military uniform. They learned through pain and suffering like everyone else. These experiences give chaplains a well of knowledge to help others through their difficulties.
Lt. Matthew S. Weems, 3rd Battalion, 11 Marine Regiment, chaplain, served eight years in youth ministry before being called to the Chaplain Corps. Experiences working with teens and his own journey through life help him better understand the needs and concerns plaguing young Marines and sailors today.
“It’s a direct relation – I can empathize with a young person, I’ve been there and I’ve worked those issues,” said Weems. “I know their favorite bands, I have a MySpace account. You do what you have to do without compromising yourself.”
Some may be ready to fill the shoes of a chaplain, but others may not. The decision requires more than just a yes or no answer. It requires several years of dedicated college learning with a focused curriculum.
“My seminary professor told me, ‘If there’s anything else you can be, do it, because being a minister is hard,’” said Lt. Robert B. Wills, 1st Tank Battalion chaplain. “You have to be able to stand upon principles and do what is right and necessary. If you’re doing it for a job you’re going to be miserable. It’s a calling, not a job.”
Those eager to join chaplaincy should take heed, it’s not about them, it’s about representing their faith accurately and helping their fellow service members.
“Your motivation to become a chaplain should be your faith,” said Wills, who spent 14 years in ministry before becoming a chaplain. “It has nothing to do with the military. It has everything to do with God. God never said, ‘I want you to work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, can you just give up that time?’
“You can still do this job if you don’t have the calling, but you aren’t as effective,” he said. “This is a God thing, not a military thing.”
Those who do become chaplains for the right reasons will find success and a feeling of accomplishment they may not find elsewhere, said Lt. Cmdr. Emile G. Moured, deputy director of Religious Ministries Directorate.
“Like any calling, when you’re where you’re supposed to be you have confidence and a sense of purpose,” said Moured. “As a Christian, my heart is to encourage people to enter into a walk with God.”
Chaplains serve in whatever capacity they are placed by the commanding officer, but they also have a higher authority they answer to, and it’s this faith that guides them and makes them successful in helping others.
“I don’t need to know my theology, my tradition or my denomination like I know the Bible,” said Taylor. “I need to know the word of God. That’s what sets people free.”
Going through the difficulties necessary to becoming a chaplain only makes them stronger and more capable of the duties required of them as a chaplain, said Cmdr. Thomas P. Hall, Catholic chapel chaplain.
“I would encourage anyone who felt called to chaplaincy to follow the call,” he said. “Stay close to God as you understand God. Live one day at a time. Don't worry about promotions or assignments. Put yourself at the service of others and respect the most intimate beliefs of every person.”