The real truth about prayer as a chaplain

I read today about two Navy chaplains suing because they claimed they were forbidden to pray in the name of Jesus. They stated, “Dietsch told the chaplains that it was the policy of the VA in general and her in particular that chaplains should not pray in the name of Jesus.”   Is that likely to be close to the actual policy? My guess would be yes. The rule of thumb as a chaplain when it comes to sectarian prayers would be–don’t. Unless the person you are talking to lets you know they are a Christian and would want you to do so. Would you want a Hindu chaplain praying to Vishnu if you were a practicing Catholic?   A chaplain is not denominational pastor. A chaplain does not serve just Christians. It seems some Christians have gotten the bad idea that every Christian prayer has to end “in Jesus name” But they are wrong.


In general, a chaplain should not walk into a room thinking they will pray in Jesus name.   Why? Because it not their job to shove Jesus down people’s throats.   It is their job to minister love and hope to all. In Texas, my expectation as a chaplain was that about 4 out of 5 visits, people wanted prayer.   If I was not sure if they were Christian, I would pray “Dear God” and end, ‘in the Lord’s name, amen.” If they had told me they were a Christian, I did end the prayer, “in Jesus name.” If you asked every single person with whom I did in fact, “pray in Jesus name,” if they were glad I did so, and if that was how they prayed at their church. I am very sure they would have said yes. Because it was my job to figure out how best to pray for them. It was not my job to pray my way but to pray their way. I was a master Jedi at knowing how to pray for people. I could tell which people would want me to pray, “In Jesus’ name.”


I have been Baptist, pentecostal, mainline, and visited many other religious groups. Each group uses different words to mean similar things. As a chaplain it is was my job to use words I felt I could use with honesty that also fit the needs of the patient. If a patient told me they were Catholic, I chose to end prayers with, “in the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost.” Why? Well, that is how Catholics pray. Almost all Christians believe in the father, son, and holy ghost, me amongst them at time. And as a christian chaplain, it was not weird for me to therefore pray in the name of the father, son, and spirit.   Are there limits to what a Chaplain might pray to accommodate someone? Yes. A christian chaplain is not expected to pray in the name of Thor or Vishnu.

Back to me. I was forbidden, in my own chaplain training, not from quoting bible, but from quoting scholars and statistics. I guess I could sue now and I could say, “my leaders were anti-science and anti-academic. I am a mainline minister. I believe in science and academics, and they would not let me quote my authority!”   But that would be a lie. Why? Because the reason I was FORBIDDEN to quote scholars was the following, I was told, “Pete you like to cite statistics and scholars. But we want to hear what you believe, what you feel. We don’t want to know what you know. We want to hear from your heart.” If that is too touchy feely for you, dear reader. Get the heck out the chaplain business! Because being a chaplain is all about helping people deal with their sorrow pain, and fear. In sum, their emotions.


I had to learn to stop hiding behind theory and ideas to be more vulnerable. To trust that when I said something that was my own belief people would listen to me simply because I was me. Not because I was smart.   Only in 1 out of about 20 visits would I have a chanced to share my actual theology with a person. More often I helped them articulate what they believed or helped them connect to what they believed and find comfort in it. With many I did not talk a whole lot about God, because they wanted to talk about other things.   Sometimes we talked about God and God’s love and forgiveness. But it was never my job to change their beliefs. Rather it was to minister love, compassion, and hope. If you want to change people’s beliefs, go be a full time pastor or preacher. Do not become a chaplain.


The long and short of it can be summed by this: we had a marine chaplain in my group at hospital. he was a Jerry Falwell conservative. He thought non-christians went to hell. He thought the bible was perfect. He thought Adam and Eve were real people. Did he walk into a room demanding to pray, “in the name of Jesus?” No. Because he was not an asshole. Both he and I did have chances to pray in Jesus’ name. But we did not demand or force the issue. He did not force his conservative religion. I did not force my liberal religion. No chaplain, especially a military one, should violate a person’s freedom by shoving religion at them.

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2 Responses to The real truth about prayer as a chaplain

  1. Michael says:

    So two Navy chaplains walk into a bar…which was really dumb as the second one should have seen it coming…BA DUMP PA PSHHH…

    I like your verve Pete…although Conan the Grammarian, that bearer of the accursed pen which drips with the blood red ink of a thousand howling English teachers, itches to berzerker edit your screed. Of course, I am an avowed pedant.

    – Michael W.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I gotta tell you, I enjoyed reading this! Good stuff

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