As long as there has been a Navy, leaders have called on chaplains have been called on to keep troops on an even spiritual keel.

On their 240th anniversary, Chief of Chaplains Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben is working to keep the corps relevant and up-to-date with issues facing sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.

"My perspective really is, to say, let’s keep what’s good and let’s just continue to improve on it," she told Navy Times in a  wide-ranging Nov. 20 interview at her office in the Pentagon.

Kibben fleeted up last year after a stint as the deputy chief of Navy chaplains. and She was the 18th chaplain of the Marine Corps as the culmination of a three-decade career, largely  spent ministering to sailors and Marines.

Her job is to make sure that the chaplains below her are trained and equipped to take care of everyone in their commands, she said, and to take feedback from the fleet and turn that it into new guidance and initiatives.

Three centuries into the history of the Navy Cchaplain Ccorps, she added, not much has changed about the job.

"Just the sense of what the role a pastor played in a person's life 240 years ago, it's really to say, 'Okay it isn't really all about your mission. It's really all about you, and where are you in that process, and how are you dealing with some of those issues you're facing,' " she said. "That in and of itself has not changed."

What has changed is the role of religion in public life, and the challenges at the forefront of the organization's priorities.

"Just as society has changed, the issues have changed," she said. "Chaplains become more aware of, 'What is the pastoral care response to sexual assault? What is the pastoral care response to suicide prevention?'"

While she has made an effort to advancemove along initiatives to keep the organization modern and relevant, the chaplains corps has been marked by her tenure has also been marked by controversy.: She inherited a lawsuit filed on behalf of a rejected Humanist candidate, and earlier this year, a mid-grade chaplain made headlines for allegedly disparaging marks about his sailors' personal lives.

But dDespite scandal, Kibben said she looks to outside sources of confirmation of the importance of the chaplain corps. such asA 2015 study by the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ,which found that sailors and Marines viewed their chaplains as the most knowledgeable about mental health and other support services available through their commands.

Stayling 'We're shipmates'

One of Kibben's main focuses as a leader is the corps' Communities of Interest initiative, which looks at chaplaincy research, pastoral counseling, religion in culture and ethics as areas of study to professionalize the chaplaincy.

"Institutionally there’s a concern that we need to be able to speak into uniquely as chaplains not all of us are current on the latest things on ethics or religion and culture, or pastoral care," Kibben said.

To create a sort of brain trust, she said, between nine and 15 mid-grade chaplains take part in a fully -funded civilian or military graduate program to develop subject-matter expertise in the targeted areas.

The program gives them time to hone their skills and check in with the latest research and teaching relevant to religious ministry, she said.

"It also gives them time away from that intense ministry that they've been doing up to that point," she added. "And then we send them back into the fleet, into the installations, to particular billets that need that skill set that we just trained them toward."

Kibben makes it a point in her guidance to explain that chaplains have to fulfill are responsible to two different — but equally important — obligationsservices: Providing religious ministry to those of their own faiths, but also caring for every member of their commands, either through nondenominational counseling, or referrals to more appropriate forms of support.

As Like the MIT study found, many troops think of their chaplains as the first line of assistance when they're in crisis, regardless of religious affiliation.

A lot of that has to do with that 240-year history, Kibben said.

Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben previously served as the chaplain of the U.S. Marine Corps, the first woman to do so. She met with chaplains at Camp Lejeune in 2010.

Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Felicia M. Couture/Marine Corps

"Within that longevity is established trust," she said. "And, we wear this uniform. We have a history of eating, breathing, sleeping and enduring what everybody else is eating, breathing, sleeping and enduring. ," she said. "We’re shipmates. There’s a connection just by virtue of mutual suffering, if you will."

Mental or behavioral health providers in the military can't say that, she added. They also don't have the chaplains' trump card: cComplete confidentiality.

Many troops have trouble trusting command leadership and support professionals because of a lack of confidentiality, because they're thinking, "Who are you going to tell? What are you going to keep me from? Are you going to prevent me from deploying? Is this going to go on my record?" Kibben said.

"We have ahve the privilege of saying, 'Whatever you’re telling me, whether it’s an act that you’ve committed or an act that you’re thinking of committing, it stays with me,'" she added.

Getting it right

Despite their best efforts, Kibben said, the Navy and the Navy Cchaplain Ccorps aren't without faults.

"We're in a human institution: the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard," she said. "And we are a human institution as a chaplain corps, and so we're not always going to get it right."

One controversial case centered on the chaplain for Navaly Nuclear Power Training Command in Charleston, South Carolina, Lt. Cmdr. Wes Modder.

In February, Modder was fired by the NNPTC commanding officer received a detachment for cause after reports surfaced that the Pentecostal minister had shamed sailors for engaging in premarital sex and being homosexual, suggesting to one that he had the ability to "save" gay people.

However, after a review of his case, Navy Personnel Command boss Rear Adm. David F. Steindl in September decided to overturn the command's request to detach Modder for cause, an administrative move that can effectively end an officer's career.

"[Steindl]Commander, Navy Personnel Command determined that Lt. Cmdr. Modder would not be required to show cause for retention in the Navy, nor would he be detached for cause," chief of naval personnel spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen told Navy Times. "[Steindl]Commander, Navy Personnel Command found that evidence in the investigation, forwarded by Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, did not meet the standards of the Navy's guidelines for show cause and detachment for cause. The facts of the case also did not meet the standard of gross negligence or complete disregard of duty."

Modder is serving as a chaplain at Naval Base San Diego as of October, according to chief of chaplains spokeswoman Christianne Witten.

When asked whether Modder could be trusted by leadership or sailors given past accusations against him, Kibben declined to elaborate on his case specifically.

"We're going to have chaplains who get in trouble or do things we'd prefer they didn't do, Wes Modder not withstanding," she said.

However, there are multiple forms of formal and informal counsel available to chain of commands to address a chaplain's alleged  through Modder's chain of command to address his alleged behavior, she said. Then there are chaplains' endorsing agencies — Assemblies of God, in Modder's case — which can mentor in the context of their role as clergy.

And finally, there are sources of feedback like fitness reports, which will follow a chaplain throughout their careers and determine how high they can rise. far they can go.

Having faith

Though The Navy Cchaplain Ccorps is by and large made up of protestant clergy members from a wide range of denominations. However, Kibben said her organization does not recruit or promote to faith group or work to close any perceived gaps in coverage.

"With respect to trying to figure eout where the gaps are, even that’s a challenge in our expeditionary world," she said. "If I were to try to get the right ratio at a command, take one [permanent change-of-station] PCS move and that’s blown out of the water."

Some argue that military chaplains under-serve some demographics, especially secular sailors. Only 0.5 percent of troops identify as atheist or agnostic, but as many as 23 percent list no religious preference — a situation cited by groups like the However, the argument that more and more service members don't identify with a religious group has been used by groups like the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, an organization for military atheists and humanists.

In a 2012 study based on an analysis of Defense Department data, the group found that while only 0.5 percent of service members identify as atheist or agnostic, about 23 percent of them stated no religious preference.

That data has been cited multiple times in the case of minister Jason Heap, who was denied entry into the Navy Cchaplain Ccorps last year, as a reason that the military should accept its first humanist member.

In the interview, Kibben said she could not discuss Heap's case because of the ongoing legal case., and She also declined to offer an opinion on whether the Navy would be open to accepting a humanist chaplain in general.

She said she believes that the failure of many to identify a religion doesn't mean that they lack spiritualism and faith. as many as a offered, however, that her belief is that though so many service members decline to identify with a particular religion, it doesn't mean that they don't have a faith.

"When a person says, 'I'm no religious preference,' they did not say they're an atheist," she said. "They just said, 'I'm not sure I necessarily identify as a particular faith group.'"

And regardless, she said, all of her Every chaplain, she emphasized, is expected to counsel anyone who comes through their doors and make sure that no member of their command feels left out because of their faith or lack thereof.

As anti-Muslim sentiment dominates headlines following the expansion of the Islamic State group, Kibben said she is confident that her two Muslim chaplains — both seasoned officers — are prepared to address any discrimination against Muslim sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. might feel.

And so, too, She said, should all chaplains be on the lookout for their Muslim sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.

"All of us as chaplains, Muslim or otherwise, really do need to be aware that we're allowing the conversation to take place, to keep our eyes open for any sense of discrimination that's taking place on an individual," she said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Wes Modder received a detachment for cause letter. His command requested one, but the DFC request was disapproved by the head of Navy Personnel Command.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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