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Military Chaplaincy: Another Path for Priesthood

Chaplain Mark Juchter with military service dog and handler
Chaplains care for service members of many faiths and, upon occasion, different species. Credit: 379 AEW/PA, circa 2009

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.