Military Chaplaincy: Another Path for Priesthood
Answering the call to ordained ministry does not always come in the form of becoming a parish priest. For Mark Juchter, the path to priesthood led him to the ministry of military chaplaincy.
Meet the Rev. Mark Juchter, who serves as Wing Chaplain at Tyndall Air Force Base located just east of Panama City, Florida. Chaplain Juchter was commissioned in 2002 as a chaplain candidate while attending seminary at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois. He graduated seminary and was ordained in 2003. He served churches in Pennsylvania and Hawaii and was reappointed as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) Reserve chaplain in 2006. He served as an IMA with the 15th Airlift Wing, Hickam AFB, Hawaii, until entering active duty in September 2008, serving first at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, followed by the Air Force Chaplain Corps College (AFCCC), Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. Prior to his time as an instructor, Chaplain Juchter attended the Army Family Life Training Program, an Air Force Institute of Technology program, at Fort Hood, Texas, graduating with a Masters in Marriage and Family. Chaplain Juchter is endorsed and ordained by the Episcopal Church (USA).
Below is a Q&A with Chaplain Juchter in which he describes what a military chaplain does, the process to become a chaplain, and what drew him to this particular vocation.
What is a military chaplain?
Military chaplains are members of the clergy (in the Episcopal Church ordained priests) who are endorsed by a church or other organization to serve in the military. To put it another way, chaplains are “on loan” to the military from their respective faith body. They also hold rank as officers in their branch, Air Force, Army, or Navy (Air Force chaplains currently serve the Space Force, and Navy chaplains cover the Marines and Coast Guard). Despite being officers, chaplains can never hold command, and are non-combatants under the Geneva Conventions. Essentially that means we will never carry weapons or participate in duties like war planning, intelligence, or combat.
Chaplains serve in many roles: Providing for the free exercise of religion for service members and their families; advising leadership on spiritual/religious matters and the morale and welfare of personnel; providing spiritual and emotional 100% confidential counseling and crisis intervention.
That 100% confidentiality is absolute! Chaplains (and their enlisted teammates) cannot disclose anything shared with them professionally, including harm to self and others. This provides a completely safe place for service members to bring issues—they know that whatever they bring up stays there like nowhere else in the military. Chaplains also counsel everyone—where an Episcopal priest primarily works with Episcopalians/Christians, an Episcopal chaplain might find themselves counseling a Jewish, Wiccan, or Humanist service member. In many ways, the chaplain’s “parish” is an entire base, and their “parishioners” are everyone they encounter, whether or not they ever come to a chapel service or believe as the chaplain believes.
Chaplains provide for the free exercise by offering religious rites within their faith group or connecting service members to resources when they cannot directly be provided. For example, as an Episcopal priest, I am able to provide Sunday morning services to those of Protestant Christian backgrounds. I have to provide for a Catholic or Jewish service member by connecting them with other resources, on and off the base.
How do you become a military chaplain?
Becoming a military chaplain in the Episcopal Church starts out much like any ordination process: Speaking to a local priest and working with the diocese. At some point the individual would need to also connect with the office of the Suffragan Bishop for the Armed Services and Federal Ministries to obtain an “endorsement” for military chaplaincy.
If the individual has not yet gone to or is currently attending seminary, they will likely become a chaplain candidate - a kind of apprenticeship that allows them to test the waters of military life. Chaplain candidates can back out of the process and the military at any time with no penalty. If the individual is already ordained, they would likely skip this step and could go from civilian ministry directly to military chaplaincy once endorsed. No matter how they transition to chaplaincy, chaplains can serve as Active Duty (full time military service) or in the Guard or Reserves (part-time military, part-time civilian clergy).
What drew you to become a military chaplain?
I personally felt an early call to the priesthood, but I could not reconcile that with the lack of call to serve as a parish priest. A spiritual advisor introduced me to an Episcopal chaplain who, in turn, helped me to recognize that there were other ways of serving as a priest. I was excited by the possibility of travel (I have lived in seven states, Central America and Southwest Asia), meeting people where they live, work, and play (as a chaplain I go into offices, hangars, operations centers and even fly with my people), and the opportunity to share the love of God with the women and men of the armed services. It is extremely rewarding to walk alongside them as they undertake the often challenging and spiritually/emotionally difficult work asked of them by their nation.
Military chaplaincy can be a challenging calling as well. Even though I love seeing new places (your Emerald Coast is beautiful), moving every few years can be draining. Working with people of all faiths and none is a blessing for me, but might not be for everyone. The chances of serving with another Episcopal priest on a base is very low, and you only run into Episcopal service members from time to time. And the calling does often take chaplains far from their families for short periods throughout a career. Military chaplaincy is “ministry on the edge” - highly rewarding but vastly different from the life of a parish priest.
What insight do you have to offer for someone discerning a call to military chaplaincy?
Whether you are currently a lay person or a clergy person, the best way to start discerning a call to military chaplaincy is to talk to an Episcopal chaplain. I am always happy to share more in depth about this calling and can also connect you with other chaplains and their families. Any chaplain can also connect you with the federal bishop’s office and recruiters from the three branches to learn more about the specific process. Even if you decide that the chaplaincy may not be your call, please be sure to share with anyone who might be in discernment to non-lay ministry. There is a good chance God is calling Episcopalians to military chaplaincy but, like me, they may have never heard of the chaplaincy. And we need more Episcopal priests willing to go out on the “edge” to share God’s love with all service members and their families!