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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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'Every day is Sunday'

for ELCA military chaplains

When Army Reservist Christopher D. Laughlin was a homesick 18-year-old in basic training eight years ago, two things sustained him through weeks of drill-sergeant diatribes and endless push-ups: the daily mail call and Sunday worship services led by an ELCA Army chaplain.

ELCA military chaplain  Kerstin Hedlund
ELCA military chaplain Kerstin Hedlund baptizes Sgt. Jason Carter in summer 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas — just days before their unit was deployed to Iraq. Hedlund covered the altar with a bedsheet and for a font "borrowed a pancake mixing bowl from the dining facility," she says.
"It was a connection to home," said Laughlin, a lifelong Lutheran who recently completed chaplaincy training.

But as the number of ELCA military chaplains continues to dwindle, the kind of connection Laughlin experienced is available to fewer ELCA members serving in the armed forces.

Darrell D. Morton, assistant to the presiding bishop for federal chaplaincy ministries, would like to have at least 150 ELCA
military chaplains on active duty. Instead, he's seen the number shrink from 82 to 70 since 2008, mostly due to retirement. That's a nearly 15 percent drop in just two years.

"We can no longer be sure that there's a Lutheran chaplain in every installation, even in units that may be in proximity to real danger," Morton said. "The impact for our military members is huge if we care about the sacramental ministry that we Lutherans are called upon to provide."

Several possible reasons exist for the shortage, including the age requirement — with a few exceptions, military chaplains entering active duty can't have reached their 42nd birthdays — and the intimidation factor. That is, "if you've not been a part of the military, it seems quite foreign and maybe even kind of scary," Morton said. "It's very easy for the military to feel like a big machine."

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