Air Force chaplaincy is continuing to grow, as an increasing number of chaplains cater to the emotional and spiritual needs of men and women serving Australia in difficult jobs – often in far-flung locations.
The Ven Kevin Russell, Archdeacon to the Air Force and the head of RAAF’s chaplaincy program, says the job of an Air Force chaplain is in many respects like that of other personnel” varied, fast-paced and frequently unpredictable.
“It’s a very expeditionary ministry in many respects,” he says. “We can go at the drop of a hat, we have people on 24 hours’ notice to go all the time, and there is a mix of people – some in part-time ministries in main centres here in Australia, others on deployment in conflict areas or operating bases around the world.
“At the end of the day there’s a lot of caring for people, being present for those dealing with stressful situations, whether it be people in remote deployments, in training, or in areas at the high end with command responsibility. We are chaplains not just for one segment of the Air Force, but for all of it.”
Stephen Gibbins is a first-year student at Moore College who served in the RAAF as a C17A Globemaster III pilot. He says he left his high-flying, well-paid job as a pilot after two tours to answer a call to ministry and deepen his own knowledge of God. He is studying in a RAAF-sponsored undergraduate scheme, aiming to complete a Bachelor in Theology before serving as a parish assistant for two years, then being commissioned as an Anglican Chaplain to the Air Force.
“When I first joined the Air Force I was encouraged by a guy I was reading the Bible with to consider full-time ministry,” he says. “That was the first time anyone had suggested that to me, and I was pretty locked in to being a pilot a that stage. But ever since then that was an open question in my mind – while still trusting in God’s sovereignty and that he had placed me where I was.
“But eventually I saw an opportunity in the undergraduate traineeship for Air Force chaplaincy to not only further my own knowledge of God at college, but eventually be able to serve the force and to serve Jesus in a different way, as a chaplain.”
Gibbins says he got a few surprised responses from fellow pilots on announcing his career swap, but was also surprised by how warmly it was generally received.
“Perhaps it’s because of the circles I was in [that] people were fairly supportive,” he says. “I think also some people were excited to think about having a chaplain who has been exactly where they’ve been. All chaplains, by nature, are empathetic people, but I think it will be helpful to go in having first-hand experience in the same job the people I chat to are doing.”
Michelle Philp came to chaplaincy from another direction – through a long-held love for ministry in regional areas. A native of Wagga Wagga who also has ministry experience in centres such as Sydney and Canberra, she was introduced to the idea of Air Force chaplaincy through chance conversations.
“I was mostly focusing on my ministry, T2Women, at the time, which [gives] women outside the college and ministry apprenticeship systems training in leading one-to-one Bible reading,” she says. “While I was getting that started in more regional areas, people were mentioning to me the opportunities available in Air Force chaplaincy.
“I’ve been in a lot of different churches and met a lot of defence personnel, particularly in Canberra, so it was something I had been curious about but hadn’t explored deeply. I went to a chaplaincy open day in August last year, thought it was something I could be involved in, so I signed up and have been working three days a week since.”
Ms Philp says the experience of being a chaplain has shown her the kinds of stresses and experiences that come with being a serviceman or woman in the Air Force, and the need for there to be chaplains who provide a safe space where people can talk.
“There are separate medical and psychological departments and we would refer people in real need to those services straight away,” she says, “but if people just need a confidential listening ear, or somewhere to talk about the bigger questions of life, that is what we are here for.”
By Nick Glibert, Anglican Media Sydney
Published in Southern Cross, October 2017. Reporduced with permission.