The author in a helicopter (callsign Strider)

How Do You Prepare?
by Capt the Rev’d Mark Sceviour

“You really can’t prepare for being a military chaplain.”

This might seem like an odd statement. Because there are lots of steps and many hoops one must go through to become a military chaplain. Even more steps if you happen to be an Anglican Priest.

As you are more than aware, to become an Anglican Priest, there are many steps. A time of private discernment, and a time of public discernment. In my home diocese of Huron this is called Advisory Committee on Postulancy for Ordination (ACPO). That’s an acronym the military would be proud of. After that there are interviews with various levels of the church. Then three to four years of school. Then time as a Deacon, then God willing ordination into the Holy Order of Priesthood.

Then if you wish to be a military chaplain, there is a minimum two-year experience requirement, lots of paperwork, more discernment, personal and communal. Then Basic Training, then two years of various chaplain courses. And then, God willing- you are at your Operational Function Point (OFP). Or military speak for – “you’re good to go”.

After all of that I still stand by the statement that nothing can prepare you for being a military chaplain. That’s because there is no job like it. I’ve only been a military chaplain since 2018. So just over five years. I’ve had countless mountaintop moments, and equally important have had to climb myself out of some deep valleys.

So, let’s talk about some of the valleys we find ourselves in as military chaplains.

No death in the military is after a long and fulfilled life. All deaths in the military are untimely, a life taken too soon. There is no holding the hands of a ninety-year-old great-grandmother who is surrounded by their loved ones. It is almost always a death that comes so quickly and violently that there is often no body to bury.

HMCS MONTREAL paying respects at the scene of the Stalker 22 crash.

I was a chaplain in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when Stalker 22 went down on 29 April, 2020, killing all six military members onboard. The Halifax chaplain team were amazing in their pastoral support to all. I was one small piece of that amazing team. We buried our emotions and got on with the task of supporting others. I was honoured to be the officiant for Captain Brenden MacDonald’s funeral. But it also broke my heart. Brenden “BMac” lived on the same street as me. His boys would scooter past my house all the time. I had to see firsthand three boys, all under the age of 6 instantly have no father. It was an accident that happened while on deployment, which meant that his family hadn’t seen Brenden for almost four months. Then to find out they’ll never see him again.

How do you prepare for that?

That’s only one of the ‘taken too soon’ moments I’ve had in my short five years.

Then there are the mountaintop moments. Times where you get to journey with military members in the darkest and brightest moments. Classic priestly moments like weddings and baptisms. As an aside, a baptism onboard a ship is such a unique thing to be part of.

If you’re willing, they’ll let ‘their Padre’ do pretty much anything. They want you to get ‘stuck in’. So, I got to become a Surface Rescue Swimmer. I got to fly in Helicopters. I got to cross the Atlantic Ocean four times. I got to be part of a team greater than myself. I got to see firsthand some of the greatest Canadians you’ll ever meet. Until you do it, I don’t know if there is a way to prepare for it.

The Ship’s Company of HMCS MONTREAL. The author is in there–somewhere.

Then the greatest thing happens. They fully accept you. You become a trusted confident. You become something greater than yourself. It’s like the Holy Spirit, you can’t really prepare for what it’s going to feel like when it descends upon you. All you can do is be open and willing to accept it when it does. Then you get those moments that transcend everything else. You get someone who’s only known you for weeks, maybe months, come up to you and say, “Padre, can we talk?” Their level of trust in you, their respect for you, their belief in what you can do for them is humbling. We hold no command as chaplains. We can’t give orders. We can’t handle firearms. We are the ‘softest’ of all military trades. And yet when a (in my case) grizzled, thousand-plus days at sea sailor comes up to you at the end of a deployment and hugs you and says “Padre, I was going to leave this sail a thousand times, then you’d come along, and have a joke, or ask how I was doing, or close the door and let me rant. You’re one of the reasons I made it through this deployment.”

How do you prepare for a moment like that?

Or the moments when they come to your office or cabin and sheepishly ask “can we talk?” Then shortly into the conversation they say, “I’ve never told anyone this.” And they proceed to share with you things that have been hurting their heart for a long, long time. They tell you, not because you can change the past, they tell you because you are trusting, you are the rock they have come to lean on. How do you prepare for that?

The author preparing to celebrate the Holy Communion at sea.

I finally have an answer to that question. We as military chaplains very rarely get to practice our religion publicly, and even less our denominational traditions. But my answer to how you prepare for that is rooted in my religion and my Anglicanism – Faith.

Faith that it is not you they lean on. Faith that it is not you they trust. Faith that it is not you they seek to hold and cherish. They may not know it, but it is God they seek. The love of God they seek. They seek you out because you represent something greater than even the military.

It is faith that needs to be the foundation of any Anglican Chaplain.

I prepare for this amazing adventure by laying it at the foot of Jesus when I go to bed. I prepare for the mountains and the valleys by believing God is using me. That I am where I am because God wills it. I may be working in the diaspora, but I am not alone.

Maybe you can never fully prepare for the awesome adventure of being a military chaplain, but you can embrace it, lean into it, and love it.

P.S:      How do you know a chaplain has flown in a helicopter?  They’ll tell you.