Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Military Chaplaincy, Congregational Ministry, and a Year of Discernment

I’ve written before about liminality, and about living in liminal spaces. To live in a liminal space is to live without certainty… to live without knowing what the outcomes of life will be, and to allow that creative not-knowing to develop new patterns and new possibilities. We humans are not wired for liminality, we are wired for certainty. One of the conclusions I came to in those prior articles was that certainty, any certainty, is an illusion. The reality is that each and every moments of our life we are living in liminal spaces.

That is certainly true in my professional life this year, and I am exploring ways of being public about that liminality. One of the primary tasks of a minister is to live a public life that can name, explore, model, and expose the human condition of each and every one of us. So, one of the themes of my articles for the CL Wayside pulpit this year will be my naming this year as a liminal space.

I’m trying to do something this year that has not often been done, and that is serve as a full time congregational minister and a reserve U.S. Army Chaplain at the same time. The last person I know of who tried this in the Unitarian Universalist ministry was Chaplain (COL) the Rev. Vernon Chandler about a decade or more ago. When he tried it, the U.S. Army Reserve did not have the up-tempo operational pace that we have now. In those days, the Reserves were a strategic force – called up in case of emergency. Now, the Army Reserves are an operational force, regularly sending teams and units into harm’s way, and caring for them and their families without the full support of a local Army Base.

So, as this is a new Army Reserve, I am trying something that is fairly new. I have no idea if it is even possible, and this particular space of not-knowing yet allowing for the creative opportunity is a part of my experience of liminality this year.

I realized that I had a problem when I had to honestly tell my District Executive that I had not had a full and complete “day off” in over three months. There was a lot tied into that… my ordination, General Assembly, candidating for a congregation, finishing my CPE Residency, beginning with my new congregation, the move from Chicago… it was not just my military responsibilities. But integrating with my new unit, and building a Unit Ministry Team and Unit Ministry Program from scratch (I’m the first chaplain the unit has had in years) was a significant part of my confessional moment with the Heartland District Executive.

And before colleagues begin to chide me… I have taken a few days off since. More importantly, I have made some tactical and strategic changes in my practice of ministry to allow me to better care for myself amidst these many responsibilities.

I have been teaching the congregation what it means that I am a military chaplain, why it is important, and why it is not (I hope) just something the minister does, but something that they can take some pride and ownership in supporting me in doing. It is something we are doing together. I have also been teaching the unit, many of whose members are used to having an “Active Duty” Chaplain, that as a reservist I have a full-time congregational ministry that has to be my priority. I can’t just drop everything and make the two hour drive to the unit. There are times I cannot just answer the phone, or do an online class, or attend a military conference.

And in all of this, I am exploring if full time congregational ministry and Reserve military chaplaincy is possible, sustainable, and healthy for me. That is part of my discernment for this year. There are a lot of things I love about being a reserve military chaplain and a full time UU congregational minister. I love that I can live both of my calls at once, instead of one after the other as I had planned. I love that I get to serve with soldiers, while maintaining the close connection to the tradition and to colleagues that congregational ministers often maintain (and our military chaplains have said they sometimes lack). I love that I am able to bring what I am encountering in my military unit into the life of a UU congregation… and to take the life of a UU congregation into a military unit.

And, I always love trying new things… being a trail-breaker.

The question I have, which I hope this year will answer, is whether or not doing a one and a half time ministry is sustainable? In other denominations and religious traditions, congregations have years of experience helping reserve military chaplains balance the needs of the congregation and the needs of their military ministry… can we UU’s find ways to achieve the same balance? Can I find the patterns in my life that allow me to be fully effective and engaged in both ministries, and still do good physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional self-care?

We’ll see…

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

2 Thoughts on “Military Chaplaincy, Congregational Ministry, and a Year of Discernment

  1. marsha mcdonald on Friday October 22, 2010 at 6:56 +0000 said:

    From what I’ve seen of your energy, I think if anyone can do what you’re attempting, you are that person. But also please know that we will accept less than perfect from you and still feel very grateful that you’re here with us!

  2. David,
    Thank you for your ministry–and thanks to your congregation for its support and sharing in your ministry. It is absolutely vital that those of us not aligned with the traditional Christian Right in this country not abandon the military chaplaincy. Please don’t get me wrong–I do not see us in a “holy war” with those whose views differ–but it absolutely will not be good for the country to have its military chaplaincies dominated by one outlook. This factor, of course, is all in addition to your particular call and gifts. At any rate, thanks for putting yourself “out there”.

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