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What Is a Chaplain? Thoughts from ‘That Guy’

image of praying hands for a post about what is a chaplain

“I want to be that guy.” This influential thought was a catalyst that changed my entire life.

At 17 years old I joined the Army Reserve and went to basic combat training. If you are unfamiliar, basic training is an intense introduction to the Army—one that taxes your mind, body, and soul. For example, before going to basic I was not a runner, so I found the morning physical training sessions particularly taxing.

Morning runs usually involved being ripped from our beds at 4 AM, dressing in short moments of panic, and somehow forming up and starting to stretch before our brains could even begin processing that we were awake. During the run, the drill sergeants had a sadistic habit of running in the direction of the barracks. Once we arrived they would begin slowing down, so just when you were convinced the run was ending, they would turn a corner and run past the barracks at an even faster pace. It was during one of these soul-crushing morning runs that I found myself ready to give up.

That’s when I saw a tall man with a cross on his reflective vest and the words, “Chaplain” written across the back. He ran down the length of the formation yelling encouraging phrases, patting soldiers on the back, and smiling as if it was the greatest day the world had ever seen. How his smile reflected joy and his words spoke strength to us was a direct beam of sunshine amidst the hurricane of negativity.

There was a noticeable change in the mood of the company as we ran, and a palpable hope spread through the group, even as we raced past the barracks—all because of the presence of a chaplain. Despite the fact that I didn’t really know what a chaplain was, I remember thinking, “I want to be that guy.”

A hope firmly grounded in God

Throughout the years I continued to have encounters with chaplains who solidified my calling into this unique and rewarding ministry. I remember one particularly dark night during a deployment where I was lonely, feeling as though I wasn’t accomplishing anything significant, and struggling to feel God’s presence. As I wandered the base, alone, I happened to run into a chaplain. He spent several hours talking with me and speaking comfort through that sleepless night. As I grew in my faith and began my training for ministry, I came to see that chaplains didn’t just offer hope—but hope that was firmly grounded in God. I realized that what had given me strength as a scared young recruit in basic training was the presence of God—and the chaplain who delivered it.

It is the chaplain’s privilege to insert God into every place and moment he is present in. They serve in military units, hospitals, corporations, fire and police departments, and other unique locations. They cross the boundary between the sacred and the secular, and as they minister they have the privilege of asking the questions that nobody else is asking. When others are concerned about the mission at hand, the chaplain is most concentrated on the souls entrusted to carry out that mission. To be a chaplain demands an authentic life lived out amongst one’s congregation, preaching the gospel in deeds as much as in words.

‘Thanks, Chaplain.’

I regularly serve as the “on-call chaplain” and recently I was paged into the Emergency Room late at night for a trauma call involving a young soldier. This young man had been injured in a parachute accident during a training exercise. As the ER workers rushed to stabilize him I stood with him, prayed, and endeavored to offer the hope which first called me to become a chaplain.

That evening was life-changing for that young soldier. As we talked I could see the fear in his eyes, his concern that this accident had marked the end of his Army career. I didn’t say much as he was in a great deal of pain, but I don’t believe I needed to. I hope he remembers that an Army chaplain was there for him. After finishing my time with the soldier, I quietly walked out of the ER when one of the doctors’ stopped me and said, “Thanks, Chaplain.” Not for the first time, I inwardly thanked God for the privilege to wear a cross on my uniform. The Army has been an amazing experience and I look forward to many more years of service.

It is a rare honor to be able to offer the same hope that first inspired me to persevere as a young soldier. Indeed it is a privilege to now be “that guy.”


Learn more about chaplaincy with the Mobile Ed Chaplaincy bundle.

This post was written by special guest James Fowler. James was a National Presenter at Faithlife and served as an Army Reserve Hospital Chaplain at Madigan Army Hospital in Washington state. 

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Written by
Simon Villeneuve

Simon is an American family-man and businessman. He's married to his middle-school sweetheart and has four children, four-and-under.

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Written by Simon Villeneuve