Military Is Grappling With Shortage of Chaplains

But they believe many are called to the chaplaincy, and that it is not just a job, but a vocation. Chaplain Mason experienced firsthand the essential nature of the chaplaincy.

"My brother was killed in Iraq, " he explained. "The chaplains played a vital role in ministering to my Mom and Dad, to me. I don't know what my family would have done if a chaplain had not been there at that moment -- when the knock on the door comes."

A Moment Changes Everything

He looked away, recalling the fear the family felt, the emptiness, the sense of being lost ? and needing help to get them through it. "That moment changes everything," Mason said. It changed him, as well. He wants to give to his fellow soldiers what the chaplains gave to his family, and now considers the chaplaincy his calling. "I lay down my priorities, my prerogatives, my gifts, and I give myself away to other people, because my savior has given himself away for people like me," said Mason.

Jerry Ingalls, a Capt. in the U.S. Army Reserves, entered the Chaplain School to begin the process of moving from warrior to chaplain. He always was sensitive to the struggles and suffering of fellow soldiers, even before considering the shift to chaplain. And fellow soldiers knew it, he said. "One night, I was on radio guard, about 2:00 a.m., and a staff sergeant came to me."

The sergeant needed to talk over something that was worrying him. Had there been a chaplain nearby, Ingalls would have called upon the chaplain to help the sergeant. Yet none were close enough. Ingalls didn't know what he could do. But the sergeant was undeterred. He needed the counsel of someone who could speak to a soldier's soul. "I remember his words. He said, 'Sir, you're not a chaplain but you're the closest thing we've got. Can we talk?'"

"And I heard his story and he wept, and we prayed and it was not long after that that I knew that was what God wanted me to do. Not only to be with them in their hour of need, but to remind them that not only am I here, God is here with them, too."

Lots of Vacant Spots to Be Filled

For Army Reserve Capt. Katie Knapp, it was her own need as a soldier-- in a camp just outside of Baghdad -- that prompted her to enter chaplain school. She saw the effects of the chaplain shortage that was already a problem when she was in Iraq. "I felt I was very technically proficient in my tasks, but I was spiritually empty. I was allowed one hour a week to go to worship services, and sometimes I had to fight for that hour a week. I made up my mind when I was over there, I said, if I could ever find a way to make it easier for people to practice their religion, that I wanted to be able to do that," said Knapp.

Simply having enough chaplains would make that practice much easier. There are several hundred vacant chaplain positions in the military. The reasons for the shortage are many: seminary graduates these days tend to be in their 30s or older, the thought of Army boot camp can be a deterrent at that age and the prospect of serving in war has kept many away. A number of religious denominations are struggling with their own shortages. The Catholic church, in particular, has had difficulty finding enough priests to serve in American churches. That has made many bishops reluctant to allow a priest to leave his parish to become a chaplain.

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