For Linda Muhly, ministering can take place in the rugged terrain of the West Virginia mountains during a search and rescue mission. Jeff Crim’s spiritual workplace is a tiny ship crammed with nearly two dozen members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Ken Ruppar’s call includes federal agents who care for some of the country’s most prominent figures.
Primary locales for chaplains may be hospitals, the military and prisons, but to serve those in need throughout the secular landscape, ELCA volunteer federal chaplains extend to places that some worshipers might not realize.
Eric Wester, who recently retired as assistant to the presiding bishop for federal chaplaincy ministries, explained how an effective chaplaincy program should expand to fit the needs of the public: “From my vantage point, there are many forms of chaplaincy that require us to go to where people are engaged in public service. There are lots of ways our fellow citizens live a public life, and I think many of these are areas for chaplaincy.”
Muhly, whose primary call is St. Mark Lutheran Church, Clarksburg, W.Va., attended a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadet meeting several years ago because her daughter was interested in the program. It had a military feel to it, which was not a world familiar to Muhly. After attending meetings for a few months, the squadron commander asked her to be their chaplain.
One role she adopted was to facilitate CAP character development, which is required for cadets to advance in rank. She has also worked with disaster preparedness and critical incident stress counseling training.
Through her work, she has recognized the power of presence. “It’s an approach that says your actual physical presence is enough as a starting point for ministry,” Muhly said. “I think you can kind of make the point with the inverse, which is if the people of the church are not present, there’s little chance of a meaningful engagement. But if the personal presence of people of faith, including our rostered ministers as chaplains, begins with a ministry of presence, a witness [or] a conversation, acts of mercy and compassion can flow from that ministry.”
Crim, pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church, Chattanooga, Tenn., follows a similar path to Muhly. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard, his charges often face stressful situations and are working on the ship in a variety of duties. He said his first instinct was to lend a hand with work, but he was told he was more valuable as a spiritual presence.
“I told the master chief one time, ‘You know, I’ll bring coveralls and I’ll jump in there and do some of the unskilled labor with the guys,’ ” Crim said. “And he said, ‘No, don’t do that. You come down and you just wander around and you talk to guys.’ And that’s what I do. And they seem to like it.”
The varied duties of the Coast Guard members Crim serves means they are frequently dealing with new stressors every time he speaks with them. It’s not always obvious what assistance they need, so Crim said he must be open and ready to reflect on whatever it is.
“In this Coast Guard station that I primarily serve, it is all men,” he said. “And they spend about half of every month in close quarters, and different things crop up, things happen, stress works its way out.”
Though he works with people of various religious and non-religious lives, Crim has a background that includes being on the water, so he finds connecting points through that familiar setting.
And Lutherans give this testimony that God is at work in the world, not just in an isolated place where an individual decides to meet up with God for an hour on a Sunday.
Similarly, Ruppar is aware of the structure and style of the Secret Service—and the police department, where he has also served—because of his military background. “I’m not uncomfortable with being around people who are in uniforms and badges and weapons,” said the pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church, Chesterfield, Va. “To me it was a way to get back in touch with something I missed a lot.”
The Secret Service, however, is an area that requires flexibility on Ruppar’s part because he doesn’t know exactly where and when he will be needed. “It’s a brand new program for the Secret Service, and I think that we are still learning how we can develop this program,” he said. “If they need help, they’ll call you.
“We had a federal visitor protectee in the area recently and the senior agent called me up and said, ‘Meet me at the local airport. We’re going to have so and so, who is coming in.’ So that was very good because I spent over an hour before the protectee arrived just talking with individual agents from across the country, who were there to support that event, and get a better understanding of how they do their work and what pressures they’re under with their families and so forth.”
For Muhly, Crim and Ruppar, the people they serve tend to be under stressors that may be difficult to explain to those outside of the field, so having someone to listen can help their work life as much as their spiritual one.
“I think it gives them a greater sense of wholeness, perhaps, to face difficulties,” Ruppar said. “We need to help make them best able to do their jobs. You want somebody out there in a dangerous environment who has all the support that they can possibly need—and that’s not just equipment. That’s also spiritual support, and chaplains help make that happen.”
Wester believes the program can continue to expand to public fields where chaplains haven’t typically been present, including the possibility of working with funeral home directors and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers.
“Lutherans have this radical idea that the Holy Spirit infuses faith and, like the wind, blows where it will. It’s not controlled by our willpower or our choice,” he said. “And Lutherans give this testimony that God is at work in the world, not just in an isolated place where an individual decides to meet up with God for an hour on a Sunday. We actually point out into the world to say God is at work in our midst, shaping not only the lives of people in the community of faith, but it’s also a faith that, through the Spirit, is let loose on the world.”