Summary: A message to military chaplains considering the major transition of retirement
I’ve heard it said, “Real soldiers don’t know any civilians.”
For those who make the military chaplaincy a career (the lifers), there is the danger of becoming institutionalized. One becomes used to wearing the uniform, learning the language (the slang, buzz words and acronyms), sharing the hardships and enjoying the benefits of life within this unique subculture. Eventually one has to face the reality of hanging the uniform up for the last time. Military retirement causes chaplains to re-shift their focus toward traditional civilian ministry.
Some appear ready, eager for the change, while others leave kicking and screaming. I recall a chaplain (Colonel) who, at 29 years of military service dejectedly told everyone he was “being fired.” He had enjoyed an impressive career, and though retirement was inevitable, he seemed to be facing it with a mixture of denial, anger, and depression. We recognize this as the grief process. Grief is our response to any significant loss, and change is scary. We realistically have to face a return to civilian life. Only Omar Bradley was allowed to die of old age on active duty status.
In preparing to depart military life, one needs a vision for the future. As God led us into the military, He can redirect us with a new vision. I grew up as a military brat (my father is a retired CW4), and when I joined the Army in 1974 as a Chaplain Candidate I never thought I would ever want to do anything but serve as a chaplain. Yet, as I became eligible for retirement, I began to be drawn towards a civilian vocation. I heard no voice, but I clearly felt the Holy Spirit impressing me to move on. After a lifetime in the military (with 26 moves), I discovered I was finally ready to settle down. I prayed, spoke with my wife, talked with peers and my supervisory chaplain, attended a transition workshop and then submitted my paperwork.
Throughout my time in the military my “career verse” was Revelation 3:8, “I have set before you an open door which no one can shut.” The sovereign, unseen hand of God opened and closed doors throughout my 24 years of service. As we trust in divine providence, we can face a new ministry without fear, confident that God is directing, guiding us and will go with us. We rely on faith, not fate. God is the true President of every promotion board, and He, not the Pentagon, decides which way our careers go. He guides us, giving enough light to take the next step.
Some chaplains lose their theological identity over the course of a military career, a side effect of working within a pluralistic environment. Exposure to different ideas and worship styles can draw one away from the traditions of one’s church. While some chaplains change ecclesiastical endorsing agencies midstream, others remain in denominations they no longer identify with nor truly represent. Upon retirement, they would rather switch (why not have the integrity to make the change sooner?) or struggle within a body that no longer is comfortable, and in which they may not be entirely welcome.
Some denominations have been known to be less than supportive to retiring military chaplains, assigning them to entry-level positions or small churches since they haven’t “paid their dues” within the system. Some have even “welcomed” their uniformed clergy “back into the ministry,” as though their non-traditional service was not legitimate ministry. This is especially true for the few denominations that endorse women for the chaplaincy but would not ordain them for civilian pastorates. This is a slap in the face to all chaplains. A chaplain I met during CPE/Clinical Pastoral Education was in the process of changing denominations. He claimed his church “barely tolerated” its chaplains and he wanted to switch to where he felt more welcome, and be granted a decent position upon retirement.
Some retiring chaplains leave both the Chaplaincy and the ministry. Age may be a factor, but for those who still have plenty of time for a second career, it is curious to see some entering secular vocations. On the other hand, it is hardly unusual to find chaplains move to other non-traditional or parachurch ministries. These include counseling, camps and conference centers, the military academy, VA or civilian hospital chaplaincy, teaching, or administrative positions within one’s denomination or other ministry organization. To chaplains thinking of making the transition: start networking now.
The monetary benefits of retired military pay allow chaplains to choose ministry above salary. A retiring chaplain wrote his bishop asking to be sent to a church “that couldn’t afford a pastor.” When searching for a retirement ministry, proximity to an active military installation should be a consideration. Not only can one take advantage of the facilities, one can have a cordial relationship with the active duty chaplains, possibly even as a mentor. Many bases invite retired chaplains to training events and special occasions. You could be asked to speak at a prayer breakfast, training event or chaplain anniversary celebration.