Theology grads serve as ‘shepherds among the flock’ as military chaplains
Every year, Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology sends graduates out into the world to serve and lead churches, organizations and communities. A number of McAfee graduates have chosen to support and minister to military members as they are stationed across the country and world.
Currently, eight alumni are serving as military chaplains for various branches of the U.S. military and one for the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
The path to military chaplaincy
Some students come to McAfee already knowing they want to become military chaplains, while others know they want to provide spiritual care but aren’t sure in what capacity, said the Rev. Dr. Denise Massey, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling and a former Veterans Affairs (VA) chaplain. McAfee does a great job of helping students decide what path is right for them, she said.
Lt. Shawn Redmon entered seminary with the goal of becoming a Navy chaplain. He said he always had the calling to serve his country, but a vision issue disqualified him from enlisting in the Marine Corps. He earned an undergraduate degree in pastoral ministry and then his Master of Divinity — required to become a Navy chaplain — from McAfee in 2011. Now, Redmon provides pastoral care for Marines, sailors and Coast Guard members.
“It’s kind of a fulfillment of a dream in a different way,” he said.
The journey to this vocation wasn’t quite as straightforward for Capt. Jessica Prophitt, a 2010 McAfee graduate, and Chaplain Russell Bone, a 2005 graduate.
The Air Force was always in the background of Prophitt’s life since her father was a flight nurse in the Reserve. She wanted to be a part of the Air Force in some way, but she wasn’t sure where she fit in since she wasn’t interested in medical or combat roles.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications and knew she wanted to go into the ministry, but not as a church pastor. After talking with a recruiter from McAfee, she made the decision to go to seminary. A semester in, her “worlds came together” when she found out about military chaplaincy and realized her calling.
Bone said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life while he was at McAfee. But his professors and counselors supported him, showed him how to be open-minded, and helped him make the decision to start living and travel the world with his degree in pocket.
After graduation, he traveled to New Zealand with a couple friends, fully intending to find work in Atlanta when he returned. But he met his future wife there, stayed, and they married the next year. Since Bone’s visa was expiring, the couple returned to America and settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where Bone served as an associate pastor.
Ultimately, they decided they wanted a change and moved back to New Zealand, where his wife still had family, in 2013. Bone was working odd jobs when he learned about a chaplain position with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and he already had the master’s degree and work experience it required. He became a commissioned officer in 2014 after six months of training and started his role as a chaplain in 2015.
“It wasn’t really something that I was looking for when we moved to New Zealand. It just kind of fell into my lap. I gave it a shot, and here we are,” Bone said.
McAfee’s Master of Divinity curriculum focuses on global perspective, diversity and culture, and ministerial skill. It’s designed to prepare students to have knowledge and skills that apply to all types of ministry, even if they change their mind about their vocation. Students who wish to become chaplains may enroll in McAfee’s certificate program in spiritual care for a more focused training.
“I’m a believer that you gain these little nuggets as you go through life,” Bone said. “You pick up and learn things, and you never know when you’re going to be able to apply them. I’m very thankful for what McAfee taught me, the support, the love from the school.”
Dr. Massey and Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes teach the spiritual care courses, which dive into topics like emotional and cultural intelligence for ministers, spiritual care through crisis, spiritual care with addicted persons, and family ministry. Students also study ethics, church history, philosophy, spiritual formation, worship and leadership, faith development, missions and more, Dr. Massey said.
“I think Mercer has done a phenomenal job in preparing us for this work,” Prophitt said. “The way they have taught us to be integrative in the community and to see theology in a more global sense has been invaluable. I’m able to be a resource for folks in spite of our differences, and I think that’s a testament to the organization and its values.”
Many chaplain jobs require professional training through the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), including at least 400 hours of ministry service and ministry supervision, Dr. Massey said. McAfee students can receive academic credit while working toward meeting those requirements, and Dr. Massey is able to provide guidance as a pastoral educator with CPE. Her VA connections allow her to easily work with military recruiters and connect them with students interested in military chaplaincy.
“We work hard to create a community, have personal connections and provide a strong community of learning that’s a really great experience for people who are going to go into chaplaincy and want to create that same thing for their chaplaincy,” she said.
Providing spiritual care
The primary purpose of military chaplains is to provide for the free exercise of religion for people who are in a military setting and away from their normal context for spiritual life, Dr. Massey said. Chaplains help connect people to God and find their own answers through that connection.
“We’re there to provide care for whoever needs and wants it but not to force it on anybody,” she said.
Chaplains offer non-denominational and interfaith care for people in a variety of traditions. They can also refer people to faith leaders of their own traditions if they so desire, such as a Catholic wishing to receive last rites from a priest or a Muslim wishing to talk with someone who shares his or her traditions.
Prophitt said her daily duties involve a lot of visits, counseling sessions and relationship-building so Air Force members feel comfortable coming to her when a need arises. She also plans programs to help them stay “spiritually fit,” such as marriage retreats and activities like whitewater rafting.
“We uphold the worth of all people,” Bone said. “We do that by counseling, mentoring, coaching, journeying alongside them. We’re that shepherd with the flock. We walk alongside them. We’re in uniform with them. We’re in the pastoral care role, making sure our people feel worth, feel cared for, feel loved, feel respected.”
Military chaplains can also serve as advisers to commanding officers. Bone said he may be consulted when certain situations arise to see if decisions would be in the best interest of those he serves.
“We care for everyone, no matter who they are. That’s one aspect I really love about military chaplaincy,” Redmon said. “We also advise our commanding officers and leadership on ethics and morals, especially in combat situations.”
Rewards and challenges
“The possibility is there to travel the world,” Bone said.
Bone’s work with the Royal New Zealand Air Force has already taken him to South Korea, Australia and all over New Zealand for exercises. He is currently stationed in Auckland, New Zealand, with his family and previously was in Blenheim, New Zealand. Now that he is a citizen of New Zealand, he can be deployed to other locations.
Prophitt was at Robins Air Force Base for two years, has been stationed in Alaska for the past three years and will relocate again this summer with her family. Redmon and his family spent time in San Diego and Seattle and have been in Jacksonville for more than a year.
There’s a lot of competition in military culture, and helping people learn to lean on each other and trust each other is very rewarding, Prophitt said. It can be hard for military members to build community away from home, and it’s fulfilling to help them build relationships where they are stationed. She also gets to be that trusted resource when someone doesn’t know where to go or what to do.
Prophitt recently provided bedside care for an airman who had cancer. She was able to be with his family members as they made the difficult decision to stop lifesaving measures and as they said goodbye, and she officiated his memorial service.
“To be able to do that and honor one of my comrades was a really great experience, as sad as it was,” she said. “There’s no other work like chaplaincy.”
Bone said he’s learned a lot about the world as a chaplain. He enjoys meeting new people, being a part of their lives and seeing them grow. It’s his personal mission to build individuals up and help them develop so they can contribute to a better future.
“Chaplains get to walk people through significant events in life: births, weddings, funerals, times of crisis. It’s kind of a sacred privilege to help people find what they need,” Dr. Massey said. “We have the honor and privilege and joy of helping people find a deeper, more robust kind of faith.”
Redmon said his favorite part of the job is spending time with the Marines and sailors and being with them in the field or on the ships. However, being among his comrades means also sharing in their suffering and being away from his own family.
“I like to call it the ministry of presence, being with them wherever they go and whatever they’re going through,” Redmon said. “It’s good to be with them. There are some good moments in that, but there are some hard moments in that, too.”
It can be a double-sided coin, as the rewards and challenges of the job are often one in the same, Dr. Massey said.
Being a confidential resource can be difficult at times, especially when dealing with people who are struggling and circumstances that may be beyond their control, Prophitt said. However, chaplains stay in regular contact with each other and meet often to support one other, Bone added.
“Sometimes there are situations that will get under your skin a little bit, but we have a great support network,” Bone said. “It does get a bit stressful at times, but we also have that outlet there. We have to make sure that we have a holistic, healthy lifestyle.”
Dr. Massey said the School of Theology teaches students how to establish balance in their work and attend to their own self-care so they can be there for others.
“You have to learn how to provide care, how to be present, what do you leave with the person, what do you return to God and what’s yours to follow up on,” Dr. Massey said. “All chaplains have to find ways to replenish and remind ourselves of new life and hope.”