The Rev. George Tyger prepares for summer deployment.
Tyger is now at Fort Hood, Texas, training with, and ministering to, the 350 men and women in the 1st Battalion. The unit expects to be deployed sometime in the summer of 2008.
Tyger’s previous ministry was at the First Universalist Church in Rochester, N.Y., where he served for six years. Although he liked parish ministry, he said he’d always had a desire to be a military chaplain. He had participated in Navy Junior ROTC in high school and served in the Army Reserves in the 1980s. He likes extreme sports and being active.
From time to time through the years as he moved from one congregation to another the idea of being a chaplain would come up. “I finally got serious about it two years ago and did a discernment process about where it is that I get satisfaction,” he said. “I really liked the idea of being with the people I minister to all the time. I feel like I understand soldiers and I believe I can do a lot more working in the military than in a parish.”
Parish ministry was not a mistake, he said. “I identify with the story of Jonah. The trials Jonah had to go through helped to prepare him for what he had to do. I needed to do parish ministry to figure out the best path for me.”
Tyger is the only UU chaplain on active duty in the Army and one of only a handful throughout the other military branches.
“One of the reasons I went into the army was to be a representative of our faith,” he said. “There are many religious liberals in the military. But sadly, we have all but abandoned military chaplaincy. The result is that too many UUs and others have no one who can serve their needs in the military.”
He added, “UUs talk about diversity, but until they follow me around for a day they have no idea. We have officers who have gone to Ivy League schools and guys who grew up in South Boston who have GED degrees. There are Christians, atheists, Wiccans, everything you can think of. The chaplain is the one person they know everyone can go to.”
Tyger and his wife Jennifer were initially concerned that it wouldn’t be financially possible to live on a chaplain’s salary. They have three children, 13, 11, and 4. It turns out the money is roughly equivalent to parish ministry. An added benefit is government health care, he said. “Because of that, this is the first time my wife has not had to work outside the home. Plus we will get to live all over the world. Both of us like to move every three to four years.”
Tyger said his liberal faith has not been an issue when ministering to soldiers. “When someone wants to talk with me,” he said, “based on what they say to me, I can bring religion into it or not. A lot of them simply want someone to help them figure out what’s going on in their lives. They don’t really care what faith you are.”
He calls himself a “spiritual humanist.” “I can speak the language of Lord and Savior, if necessary,” he said. “And if they ask, I tell them what I believe, but I don’t force a viewpoint on them. Soldiers seldom want to know what I believe. They just want a chaplain, not a particular kind of chaplain.” If a soldier should want a service he cannot provide, such as a full immersion baptism, or a Catholic Mass, he will find a chaplain who can do those things.
What would he tell other UUs who might want to become chaplains? “I would tell them to be clear about the fact that the purpose of the military is to fight and win wars,” Tyger said. “Chaplains support the people doing that. You have to believe in the mission of our nation’s military and be willing to support it first.”
“Soldiers have to face things they should not have to face and do things no one should have to do,” he said. “They need chaplains to help them make meaning of things most others could not imagine.”
Tyger wears a cross on his uniform. “To me the cross on my uniform is a symbol of the chaplaincy, not a particular faith. Besides, if I wore a UU chalice symbol no one would know what it was and I would not be recognized as a chaplain.” He said chaplains are very supportive of each other, regardless of denomination.
Being a UU enables him to be “spiritually multilingual,” he said. He finds it easier to use theistic language and symbolism in the military than in a parish because he doesn’t have to explain what words mean. “In UU congregations if you use the word God, you have to tell people what you don’t mean about that. In chaplaincy you allow God to be what it means to the person you’re talking to. I do communion at field services and talk about Jesus’ life and teachings. Each person who takes communion understands it in his or her own way, whether it’s forgiveness of sins, belief in a savior, or something else.”
He resigned as minister of the First Universalist Church in Rochester in May and attended the Army’s three-month Chaplain Officer Basic Leadership Course in Ft. Jackson, S.C., before landing at Fort Hood on September 4. Turning 40 this year was another part of his decision. Beginning chaplains have to be 42 or younger. “I didn’t want to be in a position of always regretting that I did not do this,” he said.
Tyger begins each day at 6 a.m. with physical training. He prides himself on having one of the best physical training scores in the battalion. After that he moves about the unit, trying to talk to as many soldiers as possible. He provides counseling, pastoral care, moral leadership training, and religious services.
As a chaplain he cannot carry a weapon. He has an armed assistant who is responsible for his security in hostile areas. “Much of my job is simply a ministry of presence,” he said. “I want my soldiers to see me where they are, doing what they are doing.”
He takes pride in the quality of today’s soldiers. “These are people who joined because they believe what their country stands for,” he said. “They’re very dedicated and they take their jobs seriously. In a field artillery unit it’s dangerous work and it requires discipline and attention to detail. These guys make life and death choices all the time. And many of them are barely out of high school.”
The Unitarian Universalist Association supports UU chaplains through new protocols set in place within the past year, said the Rev. Beth Miller, the UUA’s director of Ministry and Professional Leadership. The protocols include procedures to provide letters of endorsement to prospective chaplains. There is also a new Committee on Military Ministry.
“We have a responsibility to maintain relationships with UU chaplains,” Miller said. “It’s important to have chaplains who can bring a balanced perspective and who can minister across theological lines. The spiritual needs of soldiers with liberal or non-Christian perspectives have been especially hard to meet. I’m very proud of our chaplains.”
She said there are currently two active duty UU chaplains in the Navy and one each in the Air Force, the Army, and the Army National Guard. There are also four UU chaplain candidates.
Miller said the UUA has procedures now to support chaplain candidates. She encouraged all UUs to “keep separate the ideas of being against a war and supporting those who are serving their country.” Those interested in military chaplaincy may contact the UUA Ministry and Professional Leadership staff group.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.