Jeff Saville has served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-three years around the globe. As chairperson of the Covenant Chaplains Association, Jeff’s leadership has been seminal to our upcoming Quarterly issue. He shares with us here some of the challenges, rewards, and lessons of chaplaincy ministry.
What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about chaplaincy ministry?
A chaplain works with people of every faith and none. When I was with the national parks ministry, I spent time with students and school administrators from over forty Christian denominations. To be effective, I had to learn to understand mindsets that were very different from my own evangelical background. Over time I learned not to judge but to appreciate and learn from the variety of Christian expression in the United States – from the Assemblies of God to the United Church of Christ, from Roman Catholics to Quakers. As a Navy chaplain, I learned to minister to people of every confession.
How do chaplains contribute to the larger church?
The chaplain belongs to two entities simultaneously—the church that endorsed them, and the secular institution that hired them. Chaplains serve institutions, many of which are secular (hospitals, military, correctional institutions, corporate workplaces, campuses, retirement communities, and more). Chaplains extend the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ into places of deep need for spiritual insight, care, and compassion. Often chaplains go where pastors can’t. But we also bring back to the church the experience of having interacted with people from every lifestyle and perspective, and so remind the church of the great needs in our communities and world.
What can the whole church learn from its chaplains?
The church is bigger than you think! God is doing lively work in and through people well beyond our own – sometimes narrowly defined – communities. While we can’t minimize the significant differences between Christianity and other religions, when a care-seeker is in deep need, what matters most is the skill of the pastoral caregiver to listen and accompany the person on their spiritual journey, not the one we think they should take. To serve such a wide swath of people, the chaplain has had to learn what is essential for ministry and what is not. The most effective ministry for Christ often takes place when we care for the person without imposing our personal or doctrinal agendas. Self-awareness is key in this.
What is a current edge in the ministry of chaplaincy?
Moral Injury is a new category of study within chaplaincy. It has only recently been identified as something different from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is mostly a response to fear-based events, whereas moral injury is a result of being exposed to events that violate one’s sense of right and wrong, whether as a perpetrator, victim, or witness. Those studying moral injury focus primarily on the residual effects of wartime experiences for veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet people in many life contexts experience what they perceive as gross violations of morality and, as a result, their worldview is shaken. It can be difficult for people with moral injury to trust God, others, or even themselves. It can be difficult to see the point of prayer, for example, when such terrible things occur. I think further study of moral injury would help both chaplains and congregational pastors understand many of the deepest needs of those they seek to serve.
Any final comments or recommendations for our readers?
I would recommend that any person seeking to engage in professional ministry have at least some Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) to learn how to mitigate emotional and behavioral barriers to effective ministry and bolster one’s ability to truly connect with others for service.