Faith in Action

Dick Stenbakken March/April 2002

Faith in Action

By Dick Stenbakken

Just how do military requirements and religious responsibility fit together? How does someone with deeply held religious convictions work within the context of equally deeply held civic and military responsibilities? Where does one find help in balancing these two important parts of life? In the United States military there is a religious and military specialist whose job it is to bring balance and focus to these sometimes opposite pulls: the chaplain.

Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Bill Broome, cur serving as personnel assignments officer at the Army of Chaplains Office, is one of 40 Seventh-day Adv chaplains on active duty in the U.S. military. The joined by another 80 in the National Guard and Reserve. chaplaincies and other military auxiliary units such Civil Air Patrol.

Adventist military chaplains are serving at every rank and level, from chief of chaplains (two stars) and d chief (one star) right down to the newest chaplain j basic troop unit. Adventists have been serving as chaplains in the military since June of 1933, when Virgil Hulse be the first Seventh-day Adventist chaplain in the Army.


Seventh-day Adventist chaplains work alongside professional clergy from more than 200 different faith and denominational backgrounds. Each must be endorsed ( their own denomination to enter and remain as a mi chaplain. In effect, the church "lends" clergy to the mi to bring about the spiritual mix that is a reflection of the glorious diversity of the United States and its population chaplains must meet strict educational, spiritual, and professional standards. They all serve without carrying a we; going wherever their people go, including into combat.

Military chaplains serve as staff officers to inform the command of the religious needs of the unit's members and to promote the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of faith-as far as that is possible, given the operational con5traints of military reality. The chaplain's responsibilities are to help military members meet their spiritual needs while at the same time balancing the command's operational and training responsibilities. That often means being creative with both the military person and the command as all parties seek to find a reasonable religious accommodation.

Sometimes it means "pushing" a serviceman or servicewoman to see just what their religious convictions and limits are. Sometimes it means confronting a commander on behalf of a faith stance that the chaplain does not personally hold or agree with.

There is a wide chasm between convenience and conscience, between operational necessity and opinion. Each military member has the right to practice his or her religious beliefs as long as those practices do not deter or damage the mission, health and safety, or unit cohesion. On the other hand, the command has a mission for which they are held responsible. That means everyone in the command must be up to par on training. Lives depend on it. So the chaplain must not only string a theological/operational tightrope, but also w~ with both the commander and the believer on that strand as a solution is sought.

A chaplain is chaplain to all and pastor to some. That means meeting the needs of military members directly or connecting an individual with his or her own faith support group. Chaplains are not required to violate their own religious convictions (Protestant chaplains would not conduct a Catholic Mass), but they are charged with meeting religious needs within the boundaries drawn by military necessity and safety. The challenge is to keep a balance between military life and faith and to see that each strengthens the other.

It is worth noting that the first Christian church of non-Jewish origin was formed in the house of a military man, Cornelius, the centurion (Acts 10). Yet, while there is a long history of balancing Christian belief and military service, it is still a challenge. It is a challenge that chaplains such as Bill Broome gladly accept.

Chaplain (ret.) Dick Stenbakken is now director of chaplaincy Ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Article Author: Dick Stenbakken