NCMAF and COMISS Conference After Action Report
January 23, 2015
Location: Mark Center Hilton, Arlington, VA
January 11-15, 2015
In January, the Forum’s co-chairs, Paul and Tom, along with Mike Curd, chair of the membership committee, attended two major conferences in Washington, D.C. The first was in response to an invitation to join the Network on Ministry in Specialized Settings (COMISS). COMISS is a professional network of chaplain and pastoral counselor groups whose ministries focus on the military, healthcare, prisons and other institutional settings. It is a diverse organization, including faith groups ranging from conservative to progressive, and modeling the finest of interfaith cooperation in the delivery of specialized ministries. The executive committee of COMISS endorsed the Forum’s application for membership, which was subsequently approved by a unanimous vote. The agenda for this conference allowed us to meet numerous chaplains who support the Forum’s work.
Following the two day COMISS meeting, we participated in three days of meetings with the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF). NCMAF brings together representatives from all of the major faith groups who endorse military chaplains. This was the second year the Forum has had a presence and an exhibitor’s table at this critically important conference. Other exhibitors included seminaries, military recruiters, Bible societies, and other advocacy groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL). An estimated 150 endorsers and observers were in attendance at this year’s conference.
Rev. Steven Boyd, the UCC chaplain endorser (and Forum member) and Forum co-chair Tom Carpenter
Selections of the Forum’s key documents were on display on our exhibitor’s table and widely distributed.
The Forum’s Exhibitor’s Table
Countless conversations sparked intense interest in our work. Attendees scooped up copies of the Forum’s literature, including 1) The Forum’s History, Mission and Vision Statements; 2) “Pathways to Military Chaplaincy” Report; 3) 2014 Forum Accomplishments; 4) Palm cards for use by service members seeking chaplain support; and, 5) Our Huffington Post article on “A Gathering Storm of Bigotry and Discrimination.” At least 300 of these items were provided to attendees.
When compared to last year’s reception, where most endorsers knew little about our work, this year the Forum’s presence was highly visible and graciously received. We were pleased and surprised to find that, in addition to the Forum’s three official representatives, at least ten members of the Forum were in attendance, representing other member organizations. Clearly, the work we are doing is noteworthy, influential and appreciated, particularly the “Pathways to Military Chaplaincy” initiative, and the projected 2016 Pathways conference in Boston. Chaplains Dodd and Curd renewed long-standing relationships with a number of highly influential endorsers, giving additional credibility and support to the Forum’s commitment to pluralism and diversity within the military chaplaincy.
Prior to the conferences, we drafted a sound bite regarding the Forum’s mission. This very brief “elevator speech” simply stated “The Forum is committed to the stewardship of diversity, and to chaplains for all of America’s service members.” That seemed to work, and gave us the niche and identity to claim a place at the table
Significant attention was given to diversity and pluralism in both the COMISS and NCMAF conferences. During two working sessions on policy and pluralism, hypotheticals were discussed focusing on the diverse populations military chaplains are called to serve. Most of the endorsers, including some from extremely conservative denominations, seemed to understand that all chaplains, including their own, are mandated to “perform or provide.” At one session, NCMAF passed out its membership “Code of Ethics“, requested endorsers to add their signatures, and commit to an inclusive ministry in a diverse and pluralistic environment. It remains to be seen how effectively that document will be monitored and enforced.
CARL continues to be problematic and disruptive. We have agreed that the Forum should not provide a sounding board for this group whose leadership appears to be out of step with the positive direction NCMAF seems to be moving. Suffice it to say that our overall impression, gauging the body language and comments from some endorsers, was that many have become frustrated, annoyed and embarrassed with CARL’s obstructionism.
While in the Nation’s Capital, Tom also visited with our allies at the ACLU to discuss upcoming legislative issues regarding religious liberty, and/or conscience protection. He was informed it is likely that conservative members of the HASC will again attempt to tinker with the present law now codified in 10 U.S.C.A. Subt. A, Pt. II, Ch. 53. They will probably seek even more cover to immunize extremely conservative chaplains from accountability regarding fair treatment of LGBT service members and their families. It is unclear if the vehicle will be the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act or stand alone legislation.
On Sunday, Paul, Tom and Mike attended the General Protestant worship service at Ft.Myer’s Memorial Chapel, where Paul served as pastor from 1982-1986, when the congregation was thriving and soldier focused. After Tom Carpenter’s recent visits to the Naval Academy and West Point Chapels, where congregations have shrunk considerably, we anticipated a smaller congregation. Indeed, that proved to be true in this large and historic chapel at Fort Myer. We spotted only two or three who appeared to be troops, with the remainder of the congregation made up of older folks and military retirees.
Navy Captain Jon Cutler, longtime member of the Forum and Jewish Rabbi, arranged for us to meet with senior staff chaplains from the Navy and Air Force Chiefs of Chaplains’ offices. We are pleased to report we were warmly received and believe we are on our way to building a good relationship with these two offices.
The United Methodists, Mike’s endorser, invited us to share dinner with 23 of their chaplains. This is the second year we have participated in their private meal and felt warmly welcomed. We were able to discuss in detail the Forum’s vision and mission.
In a new undertaking, we participated in the organizational meeting of a group called Coalition Of Religiously Engaged (CORE). Made up of progressive endorsers, this body plans on meeting during all future NCMAF conventions to discuss the state of the military chaplaincy and note problem areas that need to be addressed by NCMAF.