Q&A with a military chaplain

By on May 1, 2022
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Sarah Priebe is a military chaplain at CFB Esquimalt and a parishioner of the Church of the Advent, Colwood. Faith Tides editor Naomi Racz spoke to Sarah to find out more about what a military chaplain does and the role that chaplains and faith play within the military. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Q. How did you come to be a military chaplain?

A. A lot of military people come into the military because they have family members in the military, and that was my case as well. My husband came up through the cadet program and the reserves, and he’s a ranked force military chaplain now too. So, it was through that influence.

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I started out as a parish priest but since my husband was in what we call the ranked force, so the full-time military chaplaincy, I knew that we would have to move every three to four years and it was coming up on four years where we’d been in Quebec City. So, it was time to make a change. A change was coming, we were going to have to move eventually… am I going to continue working in a parish context or make the leap to the military?  

When I started out in ministry, I didn’t think I’d end up being a military chaplain but when I watched what my husband was doing, it was actually really appealing. When I was in parish ministry, he was working as a chaplain to the Van Doos, which is a French-Canadian infantry regiment based out of Valcartier, Quebec. The nature of the work I just found interesting; it was fast paced, people facing, task oriented, which suits the way I like to work. There was travel involved, frequent skill development, hands-on learning, a diversity of responsibilities. You have to think on your feet constantly and adapt, and it just seemed very appealing as a work environment.  

And I think ideologically, I joined the military for the same reason I joined the priesthood — I wanted to do good and to make a difference. I think that’s a reason a lot of people join the military and the priesthood. Military people tend to be people who want to contribute and to build something together. And we’re trained that way in the Canadian Armed Forces, that chaplains and everyone else work together and we can accomplish more together than separately. So, I felt that in that environment, as part of a team, that could be a way I could do something good, be of service to people who serve and build up our society.  

And it was a question of timing, too. There was going to be a change in my work environment either way, so it was time to make the leap and join the military. That’s pretty much it!

Q. So, when you decide to make that transition do you have to undergo any special training? How does that work in terms of going from parish priest to military chaplain?

A. There’s an application process that you go through, and part of my work now is working as a recruiter for military chaplaincy so I’m intimately acquainted with the application process, which can involve a lot of paperwork.

You go through the recruitment centre and you go through the chaplaincy branch to see if you meet the criteria on both sides. In the military we have an educational criteria; we have an experience component: you have to have a certain level of experience on the civilian side; and there’s also a medical component. In the Canadian Armed Forces there’s mandatory retirement at age 60, so there’s a certain maximum age where you can come in, and there’s some health things, because it’s a physical job you have to meet certain health criteria.  

So, there’s quite a bit to go through in terms of enrolment, and once you’re in, as a chaplain, you go through basic training, the same as every other military member does. It’s a three-month course, which is generally given at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec. After that you learn to be a chaplain. There’s a basic course you do for that and then more specific courses on ethics and deployment and counselling and things that you would use specifically in chaplaincy. 

Q. I don’t know if you have such a thing as a typical day but maybe you could walk me through what a typical day would look like? What are some of your tasks on a day-to-day basis?

A. It’s a bit like parish ministry in the sense that you’re assigned to what we call a unit, which is a group of people, between 250, sometimes up to 600, that are led by a commanding officer. I might be assigned to a ship and so you get to know people. The idea is that you spend time with them, you do a ministry of presence, you linger with intent, you go where they go, whether you’re at shore or at sea or on deployment.

Like you would do in parish ministry, you’re with your people. But in parish ministry you primarily work with other Christians; that’s the main thing that a priest would do. You would hopefully do some community outreach, but your main work would be with the church. But as chaplains we’re there for all who serve, we’re not limited to our specific denominations, and actually most of our work isn’t religious in nature at all. And most of the requests that are made for our services are not religious in nature.  

It depends on the base; we do have chapels, churches, multi-faith centres where we do hold services, but because we work as a team, we’re usually not presiding every Sunday. We could get requests from other Anglicans in the service for baptisms, for weddings, occasionally for funerals, and we do fulfil those. But generally, that’s a pretty small part of our ministry. Our mandate is to support serving military members, their families and civilian employees of the department of national defense.  

People will often come to us when they’re hurting or when they’re in a difficult situation and they need some help. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know where to turn, or sometimes, they know ways that we might be able to help. Our job is basically to be there for them and to support them in any way that we can. Sometimes we are lending a listening ear, but often we might suggest or refer to specific resources.  

We can also help by approaching the chain of command and making recommendations if there’s some workplace accommodation needed or some help that could be lent in that direction. And that’s an important one because the military environment is very different; it’s got its own culture and generally in the navy and in the army — I’ve never worked in the air force, I’ve heard it might be a little bit different — there’s certain people that you may or may not be able to approach directly depending on rank. Chaplains are the only military profession who are allowed to directly approach any military member, no matter what their rank is.  

We do wear a rank, but we’re not in anybody’s chain of command. We’re not anybody’s boss, at least not at my level! We don’t give orders, so when people come to us, they don’t have to be worried about possible effects on their career. You don’t always want to go to your boss for help; you might be worried about how that might be perceived. We also respect confidentiality; that’s part of our work ethic. 

Another thing we do, we’re the resident experts on ethics and morale. The chain of command often looks to us for recommendations on a course of action when there’s a difficult ethical or pastoral situation, either in the unit or with an individual person. Because there’s an expectation that we know the people in the unit and that we serve, we can advise the chain of command on how things are going in general with morale or specific issues in the workplace that might be helping or hurting the group. 

We also take turns being on call, so that means that we have a duty phone, generally for a week at a time, and we trade off. We have that phone with us 24/7 in case there’s an emergency. When those calls come through, sometimes it’s just people wanting to talk, but sometimes we can be injected into really tumultuous situations like the immediate aftermath of domestic violence, someone’s just lost a loved one or received a bad diagnosis, or into the inner world of someone who’s thinking about self-harm.  

Sometimes we can be called to help in the process of informing a family that their loved one has died. It can be someone in the service who has died or maybe someone in the service who has a loved one outside the service and they’re serving in a place where they need to have that communicated to them. We accompany the families through that in their grief, and we try to walk alongside them and to provide as much help or support as they need and to be that calm presence for them.

Q. That’s interesting, so it’s almost like you’re a link between the military, the spiritual and the civilian world.

A. Exactly.

Q. Maybe we can zoom out a bit and talk about how you reconcile war and the teachings of Jesus. Is that something that you look at in your training? I assume that’s something you’ve reflected on.

A. It’s not something that we look at in our training, and the reason is because chaplains aren’t uniquely Christian, so when we do our training, we do it together. We have Jewish and Muslim chaplains, Buddhist and Humanist chaplains as well. It’s certainly a question that comes up and not just with chaplains, with military members as well. Although I would say, in the general military population, we might not hear the name Jesus mentioned, but reconciling war with spirituality, what we believe about the world and peace, are certainly things people do struggle with internally.

I think probably what you’re getting at is the lawful ordered application of military force and how to reconcile that with what we believe about Jesus. The way I perceive the Canadian Armed Forces is, we have the sacred trust with the Canadian public. So, the Canadian public democratically elects its leaders, who direct the armed forces, and so, as members of the armed forces, we have this trust with the public. We have to be politically neutral in our service, not necessarily personally but in terms of our service, to take legal orders willingly from whatever democratically elected government is in power. Because there are countries where the armed forces don’t have the trust of the public and they basically work however the government, who may or may not be democratically elected, directs them to. But in Canada, the armed forces are really an arm of the Canadian people. So, the public decides, and we execute those decisions. And it’s because of the Canadian public’s desire to maintain an armed force that we even exist. And so, I think if we’re going to have those important conversations in the church around reconciling violence and what we believe about Jesus, it needs to happen in all of the church. 

What I might say, personally, is that we live in a complicated world and it’s literally never possible to extricate ourselves from sin. Violence or harm visited on somebody else is always sin. I think we can just infer that from the general teachings of Jesus. But at the same time, I live in the tension of… I can’t imagine seeing somebody vulnerable or a population who’s vulnerable being oppressed or hurt or killed and having it within one’s power to stop it and doing nothing, because to me that would also be sin.  

I don’t want to generalize every engagement overseas that the Canadian Armed Forces has as war, because it’s not. There’s so much more that we do than participate in war. In fact, that’s a smallish part of what we do. But the way I look at it, in terms of institutions and being part of institutions, is that we all have our ways of moving and breathing and living and being in the world and we experience the world in different ways, and we come to it with our own gifts. And we all live and function within systems of oppression, institutions of oppression, because a system or an institution will always seek to defend itself to a certain extent. We have to figure out how we’re going to navigate within those systems.  

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount — because whenever I think of the teachings of Jesus that’s what my mind defaults to… I think the beauty of that sermon is it can be implemented from different perspectives, including from within the systems. Some of us are called to be dreamers, to see issues within the system, to name them and to think of better ways to do things. Some are implementers and some transform from within or find ways to inject mercies or grace into the system where it’s lacking. I think all of those are doing the work of God to prepare the kingdom on Earth.  

I’m going say this for me, but I suspect from what I know of fellow military people and fellow chaplains, there’ll be a lot of rejoicing if there was no more need for military in Canada and in other countries. I know I’m not alone in that. But for the moment, that’s not the case and I think you would be hard pressed to find a Canadian soldier or sailor or aviator or padre who wants war and all that it brings. Because military people are just like civilian people: we value life, we value our own life, we value the lives of others, we don’t want to be away from our families, we don’t want to harm others.  

Like I said, war is a small part of our mission and what we do, but a lot of military people join because they want to help, they want to make a difference. We have missions that people like to go on and they tend to be things like when we have natural disasters in Canada. Not that anyone likes to see them happening but the sense of being able to help and being of use to people at home. Canadian soldiers have an international reputation for being really well trained and having really good work ethic and so we’re often called on to help train other country’s troops. Those are things that people often tend to enjoy doing in the military.  

I remember when I was serving in Valcartier in Quebec and the floods were happening one spring, as they have been the last few years, and the army was being called out again to go and help sandbag and that kind of thing. I remember having these young men bound into my office and they were so happy to go. They were fairly young and fairly new to the military, and they were just happy to go help, and they were asking for a blessing for the work that they were going to do and the help they were going to give.  

That’s it. That’s the tension that I live in, and I don’t have any easy answers except that we do the good that we can, where we can. I’ve just been amazed at that strong desire to help that so many military people have, it’s such a neat thing to see. 

Q. Well, that was a big question, so thank you for your really thoughtful answer. That’s really interesting, like you say, that soldiers would be happy if there was no war. And what you say about living with that tension, I think a lot of people can relate to that, a lot of people have those experiences as well. So, my other question then is what role can faith play in times of conflict? It sounds like your role is beyond just the spiritual, but how does that element feed into your work?

A. Well, it’s certainly beyond religious but I think a lot of the work we do, although we might not name it as such, is highly spiritual. It’s people who are in critical situations, often where they’re called to rebuild their sense of the world, and really that’s what spirituality is, it’s how we look at and make sense of the world. So, in situations of conflict, chaplains actually have really important I can talk a bit about that even though I haven’t done it myself because I know what they do. 

So, we deploy with the troops, we go with them and we support the way we would do at home. Chaplains who are deployed with the troops and chaplains who are behind will often work together if the families need support or if the need arises, basically. So, we have two lines there. The chaplains who are deployed, their role becomes that much more precious to people who are under enormous amounts of stress in a deployment situation, and certainly when people die, sadly, we are there, we accompany the body and the family and friends in the aftermath.  

We have chaplains who served [during the war in Afghanistan] who saw a lot of that. We have ramp ceremonies when the bodies are repatriated and brought back to Canada, and the chaplains are there and are a part of that. We can preside at funerals; we can be there in whatever context we are needed. When I talk to chaplains who have been there, accompanying families of wounded or soldiers who have died, they talk about what a privilege it was to be able to just be there for them in that moment. 

I think also it affects our faith when we as chaplains are put into those situations where we have to walk with people when their whole world has been shattered. We ask ourselves questions too. I think that’s a good thing. I think it trains us to be open to making space for people and not providing easy answers and letting them find their own way. But we are very much present in deployment situations, as we are at home. We go where our people go.  

Author

  • Naomi is the Editor of Faith Tides and writes creative non-fiction with a focus on nature, the environment, sense of place and parenting.