Today’s Air Force chaplains struggle to reach airmen
Once upon a time, our Air Force chaplains knew every face in their units and could call out many airmen by their first names. Today, we get lost searching for the commander’s office. A profound cultural shift, two decades in the making, is driven by dynamics as diverse as expeditionary warfare, personnel shortages and a proliferation of programs that divert chaplains to administrative work. Tethered to desks and redundant programs, our chaplains are no longer able to provide effective spiritual guidance and pastoral care to commanders and war fighters.
In my first 12 years as a chaplain, I escorted, on average, five actively suicidal airmen to the Mental Health flight each year. In other words, I had been allowed to put my arms around 60 people who had a plan and the means to kill themselves. With few exceptions, every airman who sought me out knew my face, knew my voice and trusted me. In the past several years, I have rarely been in my units and I have only escorted one suicidal airman to Mental Health, though I have conducted two memorial services for suicide victims.
We are now in a critical time of austerity, broken relationships and a pandemic of suicide, which demand that the chaplain corps return to an ethos of care for all, instead of just for a few. We can do it; we must do it, and we must start by encouraging wing commanders and wing chaplains to work together as a team to meet this mission.
Established in 1949, the Air Force Chaplain Service grew out of the Army Air Corps. Unlike the Army, which moves en masse “forward of the wire,” the Air Force remained entrenched within large bases. The chapel beckoned a friendly “Y’all come!” And they came. Until the 1980s, it was expected that wing leaders would attend chapel worship. Senior leaders made it a point to ensure that the wing chaplain — known to all as “the commander’s chaplain” — shared the rank of the group commanders and fully participated in the personal and professional lives of the senior officers. The chaplain had a home on “commander’s row” and sat at the commander’s table, holding both a group commander’s rank and the wing commander’s expressed authority to accommodate religious needs, provide pastoral counseling and advise commanders on issues of morale and ethics.
Through the 1980s, the chaplain service was mostly staffed by Catholic priests and Protestant pastors of mainline denominations, such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Methodists. At the senior levels of the chaplain service, the position of chief of chaplains generally rotated every couple of years between Catholic and mainline Protestant faiths. Their shared philosophies were reflected in the chaplain service’s regulations and policies. There were a limited number of services offered, and all in the “traditional” Sunday-morning style. There were few religious programs outside of Sunday services, few additional wing duties and no deployments. In short, the chaplain provided one worship service per week (per faith group), advised command and provided pastoral counseling.
At the advent of the Persian Gulf War in 1990, operations tempo and evolving American culture introduced five dynamics that outpaced the chaplain corps’ ability to adapt. By the end of the 1990s, the corps had been forced to abandon effective unit ministry.
The first new dynamic was introduced as the Air Force rapidly changed from an entrenched force to an expeditionary one. All airmen, regardless of rank, had to be able to deploy and endure the hardships of forward locations. As with all career fields, these deployments “came out of hide,” leaving fewer personnel to meet the needs of the home base.
The second new dynamic was a consequence of the first: As an agile expeditionary force, the Air Force required that all those in uniform be fit to deploy. One third of Catholic priests in uniform were aging and ailing. The chaplain service was forced to medically retire them and, with them, much of their philosophical influence. Today, we continue to struggle with a shortage of priests and their funded but unfilled billets.
The third new dynamic was due to the austerity-driven reduction of our chaplain assistant personnel. The chaplain corps manpower formula assumes a 1-1 ratio between our chaplains and our administrative counterparts in order to balance the provision of pastoral care with the necessity of paperwork. The number of chaplain assistants has been trimmed by almost a third. Instead of reducing the administrative burden proportionately, chaplains were required to pick up much of their enlisted counterparts’ duties.
The fourth new dynamic was the result of reduction-in-force measures that resulted in a top-heavy rank structure. Recently, the ratio of junior and senior officers has begun to normalize, though our reduced force means that many of our senior installation chaplains now find themselves junior to even their squadron commanders. In my experience, this devastated the chaplain corps’ ability to advise command and advocate for resources. Recently I served as wing chaplain, a position traditionally imbued with the implied authority of the wing commander. As a 50-year-old major I was told by a young squadron commander to “get on my calendar.”
The fifth new dynamic was the most damaging to unit ministry: the expectation that a chaplain must administrate an ever-expanding quantity of parish programming. This is largely driven by the rise in recent decades of the free-church movement. The practice of free churches such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Gospel and “nondenominationals” generally include a weekly evening worship service in addition to Sunday morning services, and extensive religious programming. Much of the Chaplain Corps is now staffed by Protestant clergy of this tradition and, over time, the corps’ philosophies of ministry and practices have come to reflect this.
Today, the unspoken mandate of the Officer Performance Report is that every wing chaplain must maintain and expand robust parish ministries, including multiple worship services, “children’s church,” nurseries, men’s groups, women’s groups, youth groups, choirs, “praise teams” and all the administration that accompanies them. This tyranny of the OPR is similar to the struggle with Enlisted Performance Report inflation. No one wants to be the sacrificial lamb at the next promotion board. In the same way that supervisors do not want to sacrifice their good airman by right-sizing a “firewall five” to a solid “four” because others will not do the same, no chaplain wants to be the first to reduce the high number of programs associated with worship communities because all installations are submitting equally high numbers. Only 75 percent of our 50-year-old chaplain-majors make it to lieutenant colonel, and therefore retirement. Without the promise of a wing commander’s top cover and extraordinary OPR writing skills, it would be professional suicide for a wing chaplain to reduce parish programs in order to redirect manpower back into the units.
These five dynamics — deployed absences, shortages of Catholic priests, too few chaplain assistants, reduced rank structure and excessive parish ministries — have left our chapel staffs unable to effectively step outside their doors. On most bases, parish participants account for less than 5 percent of the total population. Today’s Chaplain Corps serves the parish at the expense of the units. This allocation of resources has been the status quo for so long that most squadron, group and now, even vice wing commanders, have never seen an effective unit chaplain. Commanders no longer know what a chaplain is, does or what to do with us. Unlike our Army counterpart, which remains indispensable to its units, our Chaplain Corps has devolved into a perplexing anachronism.
So how many chaplains and chaplain assistants does a commander need in the units? The Air Force Instructions for our two Chaplain Corps career fields identify 224 separate tasks, which are the “must do” set known as Direct Mission Requirements. These DMR tasks include advising command, visitation (unit ministry), counseling and one worship service per faith group. In a 2007-08 study of 20 bases, the Air Force manpower office determined that each chapel requires a baseline average of 949 hours per month to accomplish DMR tasks. Calculated at 173 man-hours per person this equates to a “required” staff of three chaplains and three chaplain assistants to accomplish the minimum “must do” workload for small bases. For larger bases, additional manpower is earned through a formula that factors in the base’s population, the number of religious facilities maintained, and the number of counseling sessions and worship services conducted.
The critical divergence from DMR to elective ministry can be best appreciated by looking at the manpower formula’s category for staffing worship services. For additional worship services over and above the DMR, the formula awards an installation 1.5 hours of personnel for each additional worship service conducted. For a Catholic chaplain presiding over a lunchtime Mass and using a scripted order of service, this is exactly right. But for a Protestant chaplain facilitating a robust worship community with all its programs, this can easily require 100 hours per month of chaplain oversight. Many, if not most, installations provide multiple Protestant worship communities; for example, a traditional, a contemporary, a liturgical and a gospel service, three more than required. These can easily devour 400 chaplain man-hours each month. We have continental U.S. bases that provide all of these worship communities with a total of two to four available chaplains for the entire installation. Of special note in this category is the facilitation of our chapel airmen centers. Because the buildings are not usually listed as a chapel asset, they are not chapel facilities and therefore cannot be awarded additional manpower to administrate them.
In my career, I have rarely met a commander who appears to understand the manpower system. Let me shed some light on the real level of stress of any wing-level organization. The following four statements are generally true: First, there is no practical correlation between the Air Force Manpower Agency and Air Force Personnel. Manpower steps in with stopwatches and calculators and determines exactly how long it takes to do only the DMR and how many bodies it takes to do it. All elective work is specifically excluded. They record their findings as “required positions,” close their briefcases and exit. Second, through the president’s budget, our financial folks determine how much money is available to meet the requirements. Third, Air Force Personnel, not to be confused with Air Force Manpower, then determines how many bodies are available and how many they can pay for. These are established as “funded” positions (aka “authorized”). Fourth, the actual bodies on site are referred to as “available.” Due to deployments, permanent change-of-station moves, temporary duty, illnesses, Uniform Code of Military Justice actions, leave, additional duties, etc., there are almost never enough bodies to meet the funded positions. The last man standing is considered available personnel. At the wing level, availability is made worse due to funded positions for Catholic priests that cannot be filled. Civilian contracted priests are able to serve the parish but cannot share chaplain and additional wing duties.
Air Force Manpower has determined that to accomplish bare-bones DMR, the Chaplain Corps requires 868 personnel (434 chaplains and 434 chaplain assistants).But Air Force Personnel has only authorized 345 chaplain assistants, i.e., 79 percent of the requirement. I have personally served a wing with a requirement of three chaplains, where I was the sole chaplain for several months. This same base had a requirement for five chaplain assistants, yet we were down to a single noncommissioned officer. Bottom line: Regardless of numbers, for at least a decade the Chaplain Corps has not been staffed effectively to serve its most basic mission — its people.
Strong leadership can make a difference at the installation level. Commanders and wing chaplains must know how to track a stressed unit. Commanders should track the “required” column rather than the “authorized/funded” column, and compare the required with the available. The shortfall measured by percentage can be compared to other units. This should be a critical Air Force common-output level-standards metric and briefed at monthly staff meetings.
Wing commanders can easily assess the health of their chaplain corps by doing some math. At small wings, Air Force instructions require 949 hours of work per month. This includes those critical items that are expected for financial management and compliance inspections, and requiring three available chaplains and three available chaplain assistants. Any less and the daily in-house and unit ministry is under stress. If the wing chaplain is facilitating multiple robust worship communities, chapel personnel are in crisis and/or the units have been abandoned by default. The manpower formula does not dictate where chaplains and chaplain assistants should spend their time. It is the commander’s responsibility to determine the “level of service” across the DMR spectrum. Again, direct mission requirements are advising command, visitation (unit ministry), counseling and one worship service per faith group.
Commanders must pay particular attention to the wing chaplain’s performance report. Wing chaplains are in a high-stakes game of trying to please their parishes, commanders, the chaplain corps and the promotion board. By reducing the numbers associated with worship services and/or programs, the wing chaplain will become vulnerable at the next promotion board. Superior unit ministry, by nature, is not high visibility. It requires many man-hours of private conversations and unheralded walks to Mental Health, the Airman & Family Readiness Center, the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and other helping agencies. The success of Chaplain Corps unit-based ministry is measured by what doesn’t happen. It does not translate well for awards, decorations and company-grade officer of the quarter. Promotion boards also need to decide if all OPR bullets are created equal. Will parish attendance numbers and collection plate offering continue to trump unit ministry?
Commanders must address high-drag parish programming. Divide the total population of the base by the number of parish participants. This will most often yield a ratio greater than 95 to 5. At most wings, elective parish ministry has ravenously consumed unit visitation, pastoral counseling and effective administration. The tyranny of the OPR has forced wing chaplains to drive their chaplains and chaplain assistants into long hours supporting parish ministry. We should maintain our elective worship communities but we can do this without using “blue suiters.” Elective worship communities are providing healthy relationships for active-duty personnel, families and our retiree population. This is a good thing. Our people have found a place to belong.
Additionally, the tithes and offerings that they provide are most often used for ministry to the wider base in ways that cannot be replaced with appropriated dollars. Precedent has already been set by Catholic communities contracting civilian priest positions. These parish associate positions, which must never be confused with a military chaplain, can be funded through the community’s offering plate. If the elective community is not large enough to be supported through its offering plate, it may have to choose to partner with the primary faith group worship service, another elective community, or disband. These elective worship communities might become charter organizations under the oversight of the wing chaplain. In all cases, Air Force instructions and policies must be established forbidding active-duty chaplains and chaplain assistants from providing daily support to elective worship communities. These man-hours are being taken from our units.
Commanders! Get to know the chaplains’ personal vehicles. If they are parked in front of the chapel more often than in front of your units, you have a problem. If they are parked in the chapel parking lot most nights of the week, you have a problem — and I bet you do.
Local commanders must begin asking these questions: What is the difference between the required and the available personnel and, specifically, chapel personnel? At a small wing, do we have the minimum six bodies available to handle direct mission requirements? What percentage of chapel man-hours are focused on elective parish communities and programming? Can we contract this? Can we consolidate or charter worship communities? What resources are available outside the gate? Does the wing chaplain have a plan for robust unit ministry? Is the wing chaplain trying to stretch resources and personnel past the breaking point, trying to be all things to all people?
And the real question for leadership: Am I willing to document shortfalls and deficiencies, take care of my wing chaplain’s OPR, and take the hit on the compliance inspection?
Healthy spiritual resiliency is a foundational pillar for all of our airmen. The primary mission of the Chaplain Corps should not be about programs but about people, and we are best served when our Chaplain Corps cares for 100 percent of them. It’s time to get our chaplains back to where they have proven that they make a difference: in our units.
Chaplain (Maj.) Rob Sugg is the staff chaplain and an academic instructor for the Air Force Expeditionary Center. He is an Army-trained Family Life Chaplain, holds master’s degrees in theology and psychology, and is a fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counseling. He is endorsed by the Presbyterian Church (USA).