Friday, July 17, 2009

National Guard chaplain shortage

When patriotism inspired the Rev. Jerry Fehn a decade ago to serve soldiers in combat zones abroad, the 45-year-old was afraid he had waited too long. He needn’t have worried.

The National Guard, wrestling with a chronic shortage of priests, cleared the roadblocks that might have kept Father Fehn out.

“They didn’t really want to take someone over 40,” he said. “But because there’s such a shortage of Catholic priests in the military, they said they would grant me a waiver if I could pass the physical.”

Father Fehn went on to serve in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Meanwhile, the guard has made significant strides in adding chaplains to its ranks, though many units still struggle to recruit for a position seen as crucial to morale.

About 200 positions are open in the Army National Guard and 45 in the Air National Guard.

“It makes it harder to provide religious support,” said Col. Samuel J.T. Boone, commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C. “There are some people who we can’t provide their religious rites and sacraments as we can back here in the states.”

Chaplains serve as more than ministers for guardsmen in harm’s way. They are confidants, counselors and arbitrators. In Iraq and Afghanistan, unit commanders have used chaplains to communicate with local leaders and clergy. Many chaplains are embedded with units and travel through war zones, putting them within arm’s reach of soldiers.

The guard’s shortfall stems primarily from a lack of Roman Catholic priests willing to volunteer. A national shortage of priests makes it difficult for many Catholic dioceses to replace chaplains — even for one weekend a month.

“The priest has those responsibilities on weekends, and two weeks of training,” Father Fehn said. “That impacts the priest’s ability to be with the congregation on weekends for weddings and funerals. And then that priest might be gone for deployment.”

The Army National Guard has six rabbis and no imams for its 362,000 guardsmen. Clergy from smaller Christian denominations and other faiths also are needed.

Exactly how many clergy are deemed enough per guard unit varies. The Army National Guard’s goal is a chaplain for every battalion; a battalion ranges from 500 to 700 soldiers. The goal for Air National Guard units is three chaplains and three chaplain assistants per wing; wings generally have about 1,000 members.

Guard units are responsible for their own recruiting, and shortages are worse in some regions. Units in the more Protestant South and Midwest generally fare better, while the Mountain West states and the more Catholic Northeast struggle, according to personnel chaplains for both the Army and Air national guards.

Certain states also have more military families and a culture that celebrates joining the armed forces, said chaplain Bruce Marciano of the Air National Guard.

Recruiters are using new methods to lure would-be guard chaplains. They attend more religious conferences and seminaries to identify candidates. In the past, the guard created a student-loan repayment program and offered cash rewards to chaplains who had referred clergy who completed training. In underrepresented faiths, the guard has allowed age exceptions for older clergy who meet physical standards to join and stay longer.

The efforts have paid off. The Army National Guard boosted its chaplain ranks from 52 percent capacity in 2000 to its current 70 percent.

The Air National Guard jumped from about 70 percent capacity in 2006 to almost 90 percent today, Mr. Marciano said.

At Fort Jackson, Col. Boone works with new chaplains to get them into the field as quickly as possible. Training exercises include lessons on how to avoid attacks, how to work with soldiers in high-stress war zones and how to communicate with locals. “We tell guys, ‘If you’ve seen a lot of John Wayne movies, don’t be like John Wayne,’ ” Col. Boone said.

Chaplains don’t carry weapons, and sometimes those stationed in war zones worry about the risks. “I have moments that I’m concerned,” said Maj. John Morris, a chaplain with the Minnesota Army National Guard who is stationed in southern Iraq. “But soldiers need ministry. Somebody has to take a risk to provide that.”

Church camps facing money woes

Dozens of church camps nationwide ceased operating in the past three years, and this could be the last summer for many more, said Bob Kobielush, president of the Christian Camp and Conference Association. Years of declining usage and the recession have forced administrators to consider closing or cutting services.

“I think this fall through Christmas we will see as many as 10 [percent] to 15 percent of camps decide they no longer can continue operating,” Mr. Kobielush told Associated Press.

The organization has about 950 member camps, and Mr. Kobielush estimates there are about 3,000 church-affiliated camps nationwide.

Leaders say Sumatanga Camp, nestled in the Appalachian foothills and operated by the United Methodist Church in northern Alabama, could close by summer’s end because of a $300,000 budget shortfall.

Carol Glover, 47, of Trussville, spent summers at the camp as a youth, and her 7-year-old son, Kent, enjoys hiking there. Also, her 70-year-old mother, Anita Alldredege, helped raise money to build Sumatanga when she was young. “The feeling of godliness is everywhere at Camp Sumatanga. It’s so peaceful, quiet and beautiful,” Ms. Glover said. “You can really feel God’s presence.”

“What we offer here is quiet, a place to be quiet,” said the Rev. Bob Murray, a former banker who has worked as director at Sumatanga for 18 months. “Not everyone values that as much as they once did.”

Religious camps were being built all over the country around time World War II veterans were starting families and Christian churches were flourishing. “There was a period of huge growth,” said Mr. Kobielush, who estimated that as many as 70 percent of the nation’s church camps were built in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The baby boom turned into a bust for the camps, though, and many began losing visitors as religious denominations began contracting, TV replaced the campfire and children’s schedules were filled with Little League practices, music lessons and dance recitals. Declining revenues meant renovations and repairs never were made at many camps as they aged, Mr. Kobielush said.

Other church camps are having a tough year, too. In Minnesota last month, directors of a 50-year-old United Church of Christ camp, Pilgrim Point, voted to close after summer because of declining use and the collapse of financial markets, which slashed its income from endowments. Presbyterians in West Virginia this year formed a nonprofit group to support Bluestone Camp and Retreat, which also was threatened with closure.

The situation is brighter at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center in Central Florida, but the camp is facing an operating deficit, said director Don Sawyer. “The economy is affecting everyone,” said Mr. Sawyer, president of the Southern Baptist Camping Association. “The larger [camps] may have to do some cutbacks and find ways to streamline things, but I don’t think they’re in danger of closing.”

Doing chores for the Lord

Mrs. McGillicuddy needs her trash taken out. Mr. Browne is no longer able to wash and polish that ‘57 Chevy under the carport. And the couple who recently returned home with quintuplets can’t seem to find time to walk their beagle anymore. Think about it: Do good; get paid; and do good again.

Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse Jr. magazine is challenging its 88,000 readers, ages 4 to 8, to raise money washing cars, selling lemonade and doing household chores to purchase Bibles for military personnel.

“One of our goals at Focus is to instill in children a love for God’s Word, and this is a hands-on way of doing so,” said Focus President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Daly. “Knowing that biblical principles form the foundation for strong families, we are proud to partner with American Bible Society in bringing hope to those who bravely serve our country.”

Youths can visit through Aug. 15 to sign up.

“Since 1817, American Bible Society has been dedicated to providing Bibles to America’s fighting forces when, where and how it serves them best.” said Chris Thyberg, American Bible Society military liaison. “This partnership with Clubhouse Jr. teaches kids the importance of the Bible while serving our dedicated U.S. military.”

From wire dispatches and staff reports

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide