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Changes for chaplains

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joseph Raatz
  • Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs
For Air Force chaplains, taking care of Airmen is the name of the game.

With that mantra in mind, a new course has been established that will enable chaplains and chaplain assistants to be more effective in their mission.

"This all was initiated by Gen. Welsh," said Ch. (Col.) Gerald McManus, command chaplain at Air Force Global Strike Command, referring to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. "He sat down with Ch. (Maj. Gen.) Howard Stendahl, our chief of chaplains, and in that conversation Gen. Welsh directed that we 'deploymentize' the ministry and the work that we are providing and doing at the wings across the Air Force, to model our in-garrison ministry on how we do it during deployments."

During a deployment, a chaplain or chaplain assistant has fewer administrative duties and concentrates more on spending time with Airmen, McManus explained. This is the inspiration behind the Chaplain Corps' new direction of getting out of the office and into the units more often to provide a greater level of support to Airmen.

Pairings of chaplains and chaplain assistants, referred to as Religious Support Teams, will provide the basic platform for ministry across the Air Force under this program.

"Hopefully, if this goes the way it's supposed to, chaplains and chaplain assistants won't be tied to their desks as much and they'll be able to get out into the units more," said Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Laufer, AFGSC chaplain assistant functional manager. "It's going to be great if it's implemented correctly."

Over the decades, chaplains have increasingly added more responsibilities to their office, to the point that a majority of their time was spent attending to administrative duties rather to their original charge of ministering to the Airmen, McManus said.

"Our focus is very much on the Airmen," McManus said. "With this shift in policy, we're trying to divest ourselves of some legacy programs which no longer satisfy a critical need and should not be in competition with our opportunities for personal contact with our Airmen."

Under the new plan proposed by Welsh and Stendahl, 70 percent of an RST's time each week will now be spent getting out and engaging Airmen at the unit level, rather than in the office. This is a substantial increase from the current standard of 40 percent.

"The intention is for them not to just sit behind a desk," Laufer said. "They need to be present at events and whatever else that unit is doing. They really need to be truly engaged so that they can get to know the people under their care. Because, at the end of the day, that's really what we're here for."

Getting out of the office may also bring additional benefits, Laufer explained.

"Sometimes people need to talk with somebody, but they don't want to come to the chapel because they don't consider themselves as spiritual or religious people," Laufer said. "So I think with us getting out into the units, it helps break that perceived stigma of 'Oh, I have to go to the chapel to get help; well I'm not religious so I don't want to go there.' Or they feel like they may be judged because they aren't tied to a religion. However, by us being out in the units and getting to know the Airmen, helps break down that barrier and now we are able to reach Airmen that may not have asked for help before.."

That message is one McManus feels can sometimes get lost.

"We are to be pastors to some, for our respective denominations and such, but we are chaplains to all," McManus said. "It doesn't matter if they're churchgoers or spiritual or not, we're there for them. We're here to help."

Being a more active and visible presence can have a big impact, McManus pointed out. Not only can it boost unit morale, but it can be a very important factor in the mental health and welfare of Airmen.

"When the chaplains or the chaplain assistants are out and about, there is good that comes from that," McManus said. "There is measureable data which shows that suicidal thoughts or actions, and negative behavior in general, are impacted when people feel that there are people in their lives who believe they are important. When you're down-in-the-dumps, or when you are having some kind of problem, having someone come along and show interest in you and in your life can really make a difference. If it doesn't defuse the situation, it will often delay those negative actions and hopefully give it time to turn around into a positive outcome."

The current deadline for RSTs to realign under the new platform is Oct. 1, but there are no hard outlines on how each team must accomplish their goals.

"The ground rules have been laid out," Laufer said. "But the 'how we get there' will be up to each base and each wing."

Each unit has different needs and requirements, McManus said. It will be up to each team to find a rhythm that works for their unique situation.

"For a RST anywhere in the Air Force, going to their units to do visitation will require finding the magic balance of what adds to, and does not detract from, mission accomplishment," McManus said. "There are a lot of moving pieces to it."

McManus believes there may be speed bumps along the way, but he has high hopes for the new vision.

"We have 60-plus years of the Air Force and the Chaplain Corps doing things a certain way," McManus said. "I don't think it is going to be easy to let go of the things that we have protected and developed and become skilled at over the years. It's kind of like a big ship out at sea; it turns very slowly, but it'll come around eventually.

"My hope is that when we get there we'll look back and say, 'Gee, we should have done that ages ago,' because it will have made things easier for our chaplains and chaplain assistants, and by doing that, it will have made them more effective at taking care of our Airmen," McManus continuted. "Because, hey, that's the whole reason we're here."