There’s no life like it

Military chaplains deployed quickly to Souris, Manitoba, to assist with Operation LYRE during the 2011 spring floods. Photo: Courtesy of the department of national defence /
Military chaplains deployed quickly to Souris, Manitoba, to assist with Operation LYRE during the 2011 spring floods. Photo: Courtesy of the department of national defence /
Published October 1, 2011

Want to move to a larger parish-one that encompasses the entire planet? Interested in pastoring a largely youthful flock in dangerous situations? Well, maybe you should consider the military chaplaincy. If you’ve been an ordained priest for at least two years, you’ve passed the first hurdle.

You might want to test the waters by affiliating with a reserve unit. If the full-time military still seems like a good fit, then your next step is to apply at your local military recruitment centre and contact the Chaplain Branch in Ottawa.

It’s a two-pronged process of meeting the requirements of both the military and the chaplaincy, says military chaplain Lieutenant Commander David Greenwood. “Each applicant’s file is carefully reviewed by the Interfaith Committee on Military Chaplaincy,” says Padre Greenwood, who is the course resource research and development officer at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre at CFB Borden, Ont.

The roughly 10 committee members represent clergy from most Christian denominations, including Orthodox. There is also a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi. “They can all raise red flags about candidates regardless of whether they’re of their faith,” says Greenwood.

If you make the committee cut, you proceed to an interview with members of the Chaplain General’s office. Then, if you pass the military’s physical and psychological tests, you’re posted to Camp Borden for basic training.

The number of candidates accepted depends on the number of positions open in the military (fixed at 65,000). Three years ago, 33 entered basic training; this year, only 10 did. Not all candidates make the cut, but the success rate is high. Those who stay are offered a nine-year Canadian Forces contract, called Basic Engagement.

Now comes the hard part: learning to survive military culture. Think marching in the rain with a heavy kit on your back, scaling walls, surviving gas attacks, fighting fires, navigating with a map and compass and becoming proficient in emergency medical care. You learn to talk like a soldier and look like a soldier. You master the names of military ranks and their acronyms, make your bed so tautly you can bounce the proverbial quarter off it and maintain your uniform to the highest standard.

Chaplaincy trainees undergo the same training as regular members of the military with one exception: they do not bear arms and receive no weapons training. And training rigours take on new meaning when you realize that, on average, chaplaincy recruits are in their early 40s. “The oldest student was mid-50s,” says Greenwood, who spent 14 years in the navy as a sea logistics officer.

Chaplains live the lives of soldiers, deploying with troops to war zones and disaster areas. They go to Libya and Afghanistan. They were in Labrador when planes were diverted to Gander after 911. “Chaplains are not aloof experts like Jane Goodall observing the gorillas in the mist,” says Padre Greenwood. “We are the gorillas in the mist.”

The first field training course, called Basic Military Officer Qualification-Chaplain, lasts seven weeks. That’s followed by the Chaplain Basic Occupation Qualification, lasting about five weeks, because chaplains must also master the uniquely embedded pastoral challenges of military ministry. They must counsel and comfort soldiers, sailors and air personnel-religious and non-religious alike-spot those who may be in distress and a danger to themselves and others and, when necessary, intervene with the chain of command on their behalf.

They learn to work ecumenically in Canada’s pluralistic military environment and to minister to units preparing to deploy overseas or repatriating after deployment-and to support family and other military remaining in Canada.
So what does Padre Greenwood like most about his job? “To see new chaplains acclimatize to military life and to use the terminology with authority, to know the rank structure and resources available to them,” he says. And most of all, “to be able to say, ‘I know what I’ve gotten into and I’m now in.’ “


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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