Charles R. Bailey: Military chaplains are circuit riders

U.S. Army

In this Q&A, the retired deputy chief of chaplains for the U.S. Army reflects on a 38-year career serving God and the military.

Chaplain Charles R. “Ray” Bailey began his career in the U.S. Army in the post-Vietnam, Cold War era.

When he retired as a brigadier general this year, he’d served in America’s longest war and seen countless changes in the military.

But one thing is constant for the chaplain corps, he said: “We never let soldiers go in harm’s way, we never let soldiers be away from their families, unless we have a chaplain with them.”

Ray BaileyBailey, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, entered the chaplain corps in 1977 as part of the U.S. Army Reserve, entering active duty in 1982.

In addition to serving as the 24th deputy chief of chaplains, he served as command chaplain in Europe and Afghanistan, among other assignments. He received numerous military awards and decorations, including the Legion of Merit.

Bailey reflected on his long career as a military chaplain in an interview with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Has the role of the military chaplain changed in the time that you have been in the Army?

We support the religious freedom of our soldiers and families wherever they are in the world, whether they’re in a very austere environment, such as a combat setting, separated from their loved ones -- life and death moments -- or living abroad in a post or a community that’s uniquely American inside the context of another country.

What’s changed within the military are the generations of different soldiers and people who come into the military. They come with different generational values and different challenges and different kinds of family settings.

The military has adapted to those generational values that change, but no matter what worship of God and whatever context that they want to do that in, that’s their freedom as an American.

In any congregation, you might have in front of you generals -- in my case, my age group, and so I understand their values; I understand what they’re used to when they come in. But then you have an 18-year-old soldier with his wife or her husband sitting right next to them.

It takes a great amount of training and adapting to be able to apply the word of God, to meet those religious needs in their lives. The spiritual journey of each one is individual.

Ultimately, the bottom line is always going to be the same message of hope and of peace and forgiveness. But how do you get that message across, and how do they hear you and contextualize that in their lives?

Q: What’s the difference in working within a military culture that was ready for war but not necessarily engaged in one and the recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Oh, it’s been a tremendous change. The chaplain corps has always been very relevant, but I have never seen it more relevant and more outwardly respected by our Army leaders than right now, and our politicians as well.

Along with that, though, is always a price to pay. The difference is that we’ve had to go to war for so many years now, and our chaplains have always gone to meet the need no matter where our soldiers are.

We never let soldiers go in harm’s way, we never let soldiers be away from their families, unless we have a chaplain with them.

If anybody hates war more than anybody else, it’s the soldier, and the chaplains with them, because we have seen it up close. But that does not deter us from the mission of bringing the word of God, the peace of God, the forgiveness of God, the hope of God into their lives, no matter where they are.

We have the Wesleyan passion to go wherever people are and bring them that message. We’re the circuit riders.

Q: How have you helped military chaplains adjust to increasing religious diversity among the troops?

When you pastor a church where everyone thinks the way you do and you nurture them along the way, you meet with your co-pastors and they’re all the same denomination. You meet with a few other ones that are not of your denomination, but you only meet them separately, in an Easter event or a Thanksgiving event or something like that.

Abruptly, you’re put into the military system, where your congregation is not all Baptist, Methodist or Catholic in front of you.

There’s a huge diversity in front of you, and this is an environment where all of a sudden your job is to apply the word of God to contexts -- to every one of those different journeys, their religious journeys and spiritual journeys, and to many that have no religious affiliation.

Q: There’s also multiplicity of religions, right?

Oh, it’s very complex. You have no idea who’s going to come in and speak to you every day -- Buddhists or Hindus, Wiccans -- all kind of faiths that are coming, and they’re coming to see you and talk to you, and they know you’re a Christian.

So how do you contextualize your faith without being rude, disrespectful or denying them their faith? How can I help them in the context of where they are, not where I am?

It takes the maturity of your own personal faith to be able to meet that need. We nurture [the chaplains] along the way. You cannot lead other chaplains in the context unless you yourself have grown and have been able to mature in your own personal faith.

The Army is nothing but a reflection of society; what you see in society is what comes in the Army. So they come in, and they’ll sample. They’ll go over to the Catholic service; they’ll go over to a Jewish service, if they try that out. Or they may never go to any of them but will listen very carefully in dialogue with the chaplain about this journey and never make a decision until later on.

They’ll come to worship in a field environment. You’re out in the middle of the woods or you’re out in the middle of a desert, let’s say, in Afghanistan, where life and death is very touchy.

You find when you go out and do a worship service on a hilltop or behind a tree somewhere, the next thing you know, you have a vast audience sitting in front of you who would never enter a chapel on an Army post.

All of sudden, they’re right there, and that’s your one moment that you can get something in their heart and their life that can sustain them and help them.

You’re not sitting back in the rear; you’re with them, out there hurting and dirty and rained on and getting shot at like everybody else.

And all of a sudden, you’ve got credibility with them, because you’re walking the walk with them. You’re the circuit rider.

Q: Do you find that people are hungry for those answers about the big questions of life and death and justice?

They’re starved for it. They’re starved for it. They hear this message, but they want to see it played out, not hear it on TV, not hear it in a church service downtown somewhere where they feel like they don’t fit in.

They want to see it played out with the chaplain standing out there who is tired and dirty but loves them and reaches out to them.

It’s been really changing; it’s getting even more dramatic as time goes on. Our chaplains are very professional, and we professionalize them. And that’s a very important term to us.

But they never lose their identity of who they are and what faith group they come from and their convictions and their ethics and their morals and their theology.

So it takes a very balanced, mature faith, and a professional that understands that, and one that understands their own identity.

Q: Where did you get the leadership skills that you needed in the later part of your career, as you moved up?

From the very beginning, we’re being mentored and coached and developed by senior leaders to help understand the bigger and bigger picture with higher levels of leadership roles.

We send them to courses that the chaplain corps has that are technical specialties -- we call it “brigade course.” A brigade chaplain is the next level above the entry level. A brigade chaplain will manage and lead three or four other chaplains. That’s a big step; that’s really the heart of who we are.

Q: What was the hardest challenge for you, personally, when you made that transition from being in the pastoral ministry role to the leadership role?

You enjoy preaching; you enjoy counseling; you enjoy doing a lot of things like that, and seeing the immediate changes in front of you. You see people’s marriages healed up; you see people’s lives when they have a religious conviction in their life, baptisms and marriage, which is a very affirming thing.

As you move up, you have less of that individual contact. The hardest point of my life was when I finally recognized that I could not stay and do that.

Until I came to that point, I was really frustrated. I kept on wanting to do more hands-on, when I should’ve been managing more and opening doors for somebody else. And when I turned that corner, it made a big difference; that was where ministry was for me.

And the second part of that is that I understood that my ministry now was to the senior people who could not go to a battalion chaplain who’s brand-new in the military or brand-new in the ministry. They had to go to a seasoned chaplain with a higher rank to show their credibility, to show their understanding and experience.

So all of a sudden, doors were opening up for me to do hands-on, but in a different way. I didn’t have to go in and do worship services and things of this nature, but I could go and talk about their lives, when before, as a younger chaplain, I couldn’t do it, because they were so above me.

Q: And who is your chaplain?

We tell our chaplains to find somebody else that can help you and mentor you in your faith. In my case, I’ve got a handful of chaplains and ex-chaplains -- they’re all retired now -- who I know very well, and they know me as Ray Bailey, not as Chaplain Bailey.

We’ve walked the desert together a few times. I’ve got about four or five chaplains out there who I can call up anytime and they will pray with me, and they’re always praying for me.

So a leader has to have a leader above them to take care of them.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for other Christian leaders, not necessarily in the military?

The two terms I like to use are “servant leader” -- it’s a giving leader; it’s a caring leader; it’s a leader that thinks of other people’s needs before themselves.

And the second one is “transparent leader” -- they see your fallibility; they see that you’re struggling, too. But your faith is dominant; your faith and strength is strong enough to sustain you.

They see that you’re able to identify with people no matter where they’re coming from and respect them for who they are, no matter their gender, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their faith context, no matter what -- that their experiences are important, their experiences are real and true.

So take a chance and be vulnerable.

The other part I tell them is that you’ve got to be able to keep a balance in your life, to be able to say no when you mean no, to take the time off, to take the time out to be with your family, but to be with yourself, too.

Otherwise, you’ll run out of gas quickly. You’ll be behind the times, and you’ll be frustrated and become cynical.