by Darren Jaensch
Members of the defence forces often compromise their own comfort and safety in seeking to protect the freedoms we as Australians and New Zealanders enjoy.
Those who have faith need to be supported and ministered to, especially when they are isolated from their home church or religious community. Others may become open to faith and spiritual growth when confronted with alternative realities or removed from their usual supports.
Defence chaplains provide pastoral, spiritual and religious support to people (souls) in this context. Chaplains also advocate for the powerless and speak an alternative and fearless voice to commanders.
Chaplains educate and influence commanders and troops alike in the reality of the spiritual dimension to life, moral consequences, the importance of character and faith, and compassion in the sacred encounters of life. And, often, our very presence is a simple reminder of the reality of the transcendent.
Since recently taking on the role of Director General Chaplaincy – Army, I have been responsible to the Chief of Army for overseeing the management of 71 full-time and roughly 100 part-time chaplains from Christian denominations and other faiths. I also am required to oversee the recruitment, training and resourcing of chaplains, their support to Australian Defence Force operations, and the provision of pastoral, spiritual and religious support to the Army workforce. My focus includes setting a vision and direction for Army chaplaincy, and shaping its culture and ethos.
Concurrently, I assume the role of Principal Chaplain Protestant Denominations, which means I exercise oversight and care of all Protestant chaplains in Army. I represent them in posting considerations, monitor denominational accountability, advise on suitability for Army chaplaincy, and advise Army commanders on Protestant matters.
I have a great team of senior chaplains and strive to harness their enthusiasm and giftings, as they develop as leaders in chaplaincy.
However, this role has been a world away – both figuratively and, at times, literally – from the realm of service and work I expected to be a part of when I began studying for ministry in the LCA.
I was a parish pastor for six years in Queensland and Northern Territory from 1994. But God was already leading me towards my present role even before I was ordained. In 1992, while I was on vicarage, Pastor Ken Schmidt talked to me about the possibility of Army chaplaincy in the future. He could see something I couldn’t, and I distinctly remember laughing at the suggestion. Ken (and God) had the last laugh! In 1998 I served a parish that had a number of Defence members in the congregation. In an effort to understand their world and, in response to approaches from local chaplains and advice from the previous pastor, David Spike, I agreed to support the Army in
part-time (Reserve) chaplaincy.
I liked it, it liked me, and two years later, the opportunity to serve full-time presented. I discerned a calling to that ministry and the LCA agreed to release me to represent the church in that mission context.
It is a specialised ministry and not everyone’s cup of tea, nor is everyone suited to it. But I find fulfilment in knowing that I am able to ply my ministry gifting in a context that also contributes to our national security.
I find joy in engaging with clergy and faith group leaders from other denominations and even faith groups, and working together with them as colleagues.
Defence chaplains can find themselves in a wide variety of situations, which can be both invigorating and frightening. Not many people get paid to visit unfamiliar parts of the world or to jump out of perfectly serviceable aeroplanes! But mostly, there is both challenge and fulfilment in engaging with a flock which is largely unchurched and yet working in fields in which members necessarily encounter issues with spiritual and eternal relevance.
There is joy in enabling them to find a vocabulary for that experience, and to lead them into the reality of the divine and a faith journey. Most of what we do as chaplains might be termed ‘pre-evangelism’, sowing seeds perhaps. Occasionally we get to see that seed germinate. There are inevitable domestic, personal and philosophical ‘rub points’ in defence chaplaincy. Army service can take you to more remote parts of the country, away from family support.
There is inherent danger in the role, too, both on overseas operations and in training exercises. And you can face physically challenging and uncomfortable working and living environments.
Defence service means signing up to be where the troops are. Sometimes that means involvement in military actions that chaplains – and other members – feel conflicted about. These issues need to be philosophically worked through by clergy who seek to minister in this context and play their part in serving the people of Australia and defending the nation’s interests.
Chaplains are not permitted to proselytise, and are expected to remain respectful in encouraging and providing support to folk of faith in their existing spiritual or religious journeys. So there is no ‘Bible bashing’.
St Francis of Assisi is erroneously quoted as saying, ‘Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words’. This sentiment, however, is a reality for chaplains. Our actions and care often preach a clearer gospel than our spoken words.
And we have opportunity to share our personal faith, respectfully and appropriately, in pastoral counselling encounters; in character-training lessons; in quiet conversations at 3.00am on piquet in the gun pit; and in conversations that follow when members face morally and spiritually confronting situations, including the taking of life, the death of mates and their own thin grasp on life.
Even a prayer or blessing, given in response to a superstitious or talismanic request, is an opportunity to introduce people to the Lord of Life.
Pastor Darren Jaensch is the Australian Army’s Director General Chaplaincy.
The LCA needs good people to fly the flag for the church in defence chaplaincy. If you are a pastor and believe you have a gifting for this ministry, or if you believe your pastor would be well suited, the Secretary of the Church, Pastor Neville Otto, would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part-time chaplains are given training and ministry exposure that can significantly enhance their effectiveness in parish and other LCA ministries. Likewise, if you know of women and men in ministry in other churches who might be suited, please contact Pastor Darren Jaensch at email@example.com