Once a rarity, UU military chaplains increasing

Once a rarity, UU military chaplains increasing

The growing number of UU chaplains reflects sea change in UUA’s relationship to the military.

Donald E. Skinner


The Rev. Sarah Lammert, director of Ministries and Faith Development for the Unitarian Universalist Association, will become chair-elect in January of the national organization of faith groups that endorse military chaplains.

Lammert’s impending selection as chair-elect is in large measure because Unitarian Universalism has become more welcoming to military chaplains and military families. It’s pretty easy to remember a time—even within the past decade—when Unitarian Universalism had one or two military chaplains at most. Today it has 10, with seven others either in theology school or considering chaplaincy.

Although that is still not a big number, it does mean that UU chaplains are ascending. Their presence represents a sea change in the UUA’s relationship to the military.

It’s no secret that for many years after the Vietnam War many UUs harbored some hostility toward the war and the politicians who promoted it. In some cases veterans themselves were treated distantly in our congregations, even shunned. Lammert believes there’s a direct connection between the lack of UU chaplains and the lack of support that people in uniform have felt.

Several things have caused those attitudes to shift: the passage of time, 9/11, and the presence among us of veterans of one, then two Iraq wars and the war in Afghanistan. “People began to understand that you could be for or against a war without being against the people who serve the country,” Lammert said.​

First-ever retreat for UU military chaplains in February 2011.

Gathered at the first-ever retreat for UU military chaplains in February 2011 were: (from left, front row) Seanan Holland, Bret Lortie, Sarah Lammert, Cynthia Kane, Chris Antal, and Xolani Kacela; (back row) David Pyle, Azande Sasa, and Rebekah Montgomery.

Courtesy of the Rev. Cynthia Kane

It also helped that the UUA administration took particular steps to make veterans, and especially chaplains, feel welcome, including establishing a Committee on Military Ministry and creating a clearly defined path to gaining endorsement as a UU chaplain. “Even before that there were always people in the administration who were supportive of the few chaplains we had, but we really needed a critical mass of chaplains in order to move forward,” said Lammert.

A year from this January, if all goes according to plan, Lammert will go from being president-elect to president of the National Conference of Ministry to the Armed Forces. She will be the first UU to hold this position and the second woman. The conference, which includes representatives of more than 200 faith traditions, is charged with upholding standards for chaplaincy and promoting interfaith understanding and respect.

This is a generally conservative group, Lammert noted. She is one of only three female endorsers. “The fact I am being put forward indicates a commitment to plurality and diversity.” She noted that in this position she will be “a voice for everyone serving in the military, including LGBT folks.”

Update 2.15.13: In January Lammert was elected to the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Ministry to the Armed Forces. Lammert, who is one of only three female endorsers, had been nominated as president-elect of the conference, but she withdrew her name over objections from some religious conservatives and was elected instead to the executive committee.

The Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley was the first chair of the Committee on Military Ministry that the UUA formed in 2007 and she remains in that position. In addition she is district executive of the UUA’s Heartland District. And she’s been a chaplain as well. In the mid-90s she served as a chaplain for the Southfield, Mich., police department. She remembers some UU colleagues who thought she was “consorting with the enemy” by doing that. That inspired her to write her Ph.D. thesis in 2007 on UU attitudes toward police and military chaplaincy.

She found that UU congregations were “not favorably disposed” toward either the military or police. “When I started this work no one even knew who our chaplains were,” Presley said. “Things are a lot better now. There are many more people who value what our chaplains do and figure out ways to honor that.”

Lammert said any denomination that wants to attract people who are unchurched or that cares about diversity has to be involved with the military. “The military is widely understood to be the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse institution in the U.S. It is also way more diverse in terms of class than are typical UU congregations. This is a great example of the potential of Congregations and Beyond to reach people we have wanted to welcome, and who could certainly benefit from our religious communities, but who are generally beyond our walls.” Congregations and Beyond is a UUA initiative that invites congregations to consider new ways of reaching people who might not otherwise find the denomination.

“I’ve heard it said that something like 50 percent of soldiers lose their faith while at war,” Lammert said. “Most of them are between 18-22 years of age, and they are thrown into situations most of us couldn’t imagine in terms of their moral complexity. We can and should be walking with these people and sharing their faith journeys in real ways. They deserve our commitment.”

Called to chaplaincy

First Lieutenant Chris Antal, who began a tour of duty in Afghanistan in October, is a UU chaplain. In seminary during 9/11, he felt called to chaplaincy. That call was reinforced at the 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when then-UUA President William Sinkford gave military chaplains a shout-out. “Rev. Sinkford had all of us sit in the front row during his address. We got a standing ovation from the whole assembly. That was unprecedented,” Antal said. “It certainly gave me a good impression, and I certainly felt supported. My experience has been nothing but positive.”

At the General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., in 2011, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, for which Antal is a community minister, sponsored a worship service for military and former military. “For many of the veterans in the audience it was the first time they’d been acknowledged at the national UU level or had their commitment to their country honored. There wasn’t a dry eye,” said Presley.

Antal was ordained March 28, 2011, and commissioned a month later as a chaplain. He is serving in Afghanistan with an Army National Guard unit from New York State.

Antal emphasizes the importance of having religiously liberal chaplains in the military. Partly it’s about those soldiers who might be unchurched or hold beliefs that are out of the mainstream, including those who are pagan. “Soldiers have told me, ‘You are the first chaplain who would ever pray with me,’” Antal said.

He added, “I’ve been able to do all kinds of meaningful ministry in the past year, especially after ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was repealed last year. Not only does the Army need chaplains, it needs liberal chaplains to balance the overwhelming number of evangelicals within chaplaincy. When we, as a denomination, walked away from the military after Vietnam, the vacuum was filled by others.”

Antal said that many soldiers are open to different approaches to religion. “When people face the actuality of war and combat and the possibility of death, they start to search their souls. They want to be prepared.”

Congregations have a role too, he said. “Soldiers need to be welcomed when they come to church. Suicide rates of veterans are off the charts. Our congregations and our country as a whole share a moral responsibility to be open to the military. They are working on our behalf.”

Each active duty chaplain has a chaplain’s assistant. Together they form a religious support team. Antal’s assistant is Army Specialist Anthony “Tony” Taylor, who happens to be a UU. He and Antal comprise the first all-UU religious support team. In Afghanistan, Taylor says his goals are to “keep soldiers whole and help them remember they have first names” and to “bring some humanity to the military machine.” He hopes to enter Starr King School for the Ministry when he returns. “Army chaplaincy is on my radar,” Taylor said.

‘A welcome mat’

Cynthia Kane, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, became one of the first UU chaplains in contemporary times. She received her military commission a month before 9/11/01.

“That was a different time,” she said. “When the dean announced at our divinity school graduation in 1996 that I was going to go into the military one of my UU colleagues commented, ‘What a waste of a Harvard degree.’ The military wasn’t considered a viable ministry,” she said. “Later in my career, when I would preach at a congregation, generally on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, or Veterans Day, I oftentimes was the first person that congregation had ever seen in uniform on a Sunday morning.”

Times have changed. In 2004, a Google search for “military” on UUA.org showed only a page on how to become a conscientious objector, said Kane. “Today, there are about 2,000 results.”

There is greater acceptance and appreciation for what UU military chaplains do, she said. To build on that, Kane encourages congregations to put out the welcome mat for military members and their families. “For every protest sign on the front lawn there should also be something welcoming veterans. Recognize veterans in the congregation. Show up as a congregation with your banner at the Fourth of July parade. Young people who’ve experienced military combat often question their faith; our congregations are the perfect places to bring and to hold those questions,” she said.

Resources available to congregations include the UU Military Bridge Builder Kit, produced by the Church of the Larger Fellowship. “It helps congregations find ways to put out a welcome mat as well as look at internalized fears and biases about military service,” Kane said. CLF also has a UU Military Ministries webpage.

Another resource is a book of readings, Bless All Who Serve, edited by the Rev. Dr. Matthew Tittle and the Rev. Gail Tittle, both veterans. It is available from the UUA Bookstore.

Kane said Lammert’s prospective presidency of the endorsers group is “a significant advance for our position in both worlds of Unitarian Universalist and military chaplaincy. It not only means we’re at the table but, in some ways, charting the course for the future roles and responsibilities of military chaplains.” Kane also credits former UUA President the Rev. William Sinkford and the Rev. Beth Miller, former director of Ministry and Professional Leadership, with creating and implementing some of the UUA processes for becoming a chaplain. “And Sarah continues to build on that,” said Kane.

Last year Lammert organized a first-ever retreat for UU chaplains. “It was amazing,” Lammert said. “Our chaplains have such demanding ministries yet they don’t have the opportunity to get together in a group and share deeply,” she said.

For Kane, who has been a mentor to most of the chaplains at that retreat, there was a moment of realization as she looked around the room. “I kept looking around, wondering ‘Where did all of you come from?’” Kane’s UU military colleagues claim she “kicked down the door” within Unitarian Universalism to help create this new ministry. Kane claims only partial credit. ”There were a lot of things that needed to happen to get us to where we are today,” she said, “and there were a lot of people who made that happen. I’m honored and grateful to be a part of it.”

‘Diverse ministry’

George Tyger, a UU parish minister for 14 years, became an Army chaplain in 2007. He said, “As a UU chaplain I can look beyond one religious tradition and engage with soldiers that some other chaplains might have a harder time with.”

He notes that when he started, “I was a lonely voice in the Army. It’s slightly less lonely now with a few more of us. What has vastly improved is the level of contact and support from the UUA.”

Tyger has served two tours in Afghanistan. “More often what we deal with as chaplains is not the coming face-to-face with death in battle, but whatever realities you have when you’re 18 to 25—financial issues, arguments with your spouse, some trouble you’ve gotten into. And this is the most diverse ministry anyone can be part of. Race, gender, class, we have everything. I love it.”

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Correction 11.19.12: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the Rev. Chris Antal’s ordination and commissioning as a chaplain. He was ordained and commissioned in 2011, not 2012.