HILL AIR FORCE BASE – Hill’s chaplains are seeing a radical change in how they serve their fellow Airmen, spurred on by budget cuts and a real need to help Airmen by their sides, rather than inside a chapel.
This was just part of the message shared with several Brigham Young University graduate students during their visit to the Hill AFB chapel last week. The students are studying to become military chaplains, and visited the installation to learn more on how Air Force chaplains minister.
By shying away from parish-approached ministry to Airmen, chaplains are now ministering more in their units, with the goal of utilizing 45 percent of their time with Airmen. However, it’s slow going, with chaplains only getting out into units 18 percent of the time.
“We are still in transition because we are hesitant to give up the cookie cutter approach,” said Hill AFB Head Chaplain, Maj. Eric Harp. “We are still trying to do both things at once, but we are slowly peeling away from the parish program.”
Even though sequestration has forced the ministry’s hand, the shift away from the parish-approached ministry is actually revolutionary Harp said, having discovered only about 9 percent of Airmen spending time in a chapel on Sundays. But if chaplains are amongst the Airmen in the workplace, they can reach 90 to 95 percent of the Airmen in their units.
“Folks who have never set foot in a chapel become comfortable with me when I am out there watching them replace widgets on jets, and then they will open up, saying they aren’t religious, but they want to talk to me,” Harp said. “This is one layer of care that wouldn’t be available if we weren’t out there.”
However, not having a high number of Airmen attend church on Sunday isn’t what keeps Harp awake at night. It’s the Airmen who are committing suicide and Airmen sexually assaulting other Airmen. With those numbers trending upwards, Harp has many sleepless nights.
Embedding himself in the units with Airmen is a step in the right direction he said.
Harp told the students his direct working orders from Col. Ron Jolly, Commander of the 75th Air Base Wing, are to take care of the spiritual maintenance of the troops. Jolly spoke to the students as well, reiterating how important a chaplain’s job is to sustaining Airmen.
“If we could get our Airmen and their families to focus more on spirituality, I think we’d be even stronger, but unfortunately, that’s not usually the case,” Jolly said.
Jolly lamented the decrease the military is seeing of a much needed resource, referring to budget cuts affecting military ministry.
“I believe resiliency starts at our spiritual core, and our chaplains help build that, but the reality is that our human weapons system is the easiest thing to cut because of the expense,” Jolly said. “When you look at what it takes to sustain our Airmen, what are we going to do without our chaplains?” Jolly questioned.
Jolly said as the Air Base Wing commander he relies heavily on his closed-door sessions with a chaplain.
(75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs contributed to this article.)