Women make up 19% of active duty service members in the Air Force. I’m a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, and the numbers in my career field are even lower. The last statistics I saw reflected fewer than twenty female chaplains in the Reserves out of about two hundred.
And yet it’s in Air Force chapels where I have felt most welcomed, most encouraged, and most supported in my ministry. Yes, I have stories of harassment and marginalization, of being singled out because of my gender. And by highlighting the positives about my experience, I don’t intend to gloss over these challenges and offenses. Many women do experience sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the military, and those issues certainly should be addressed.
But the military is also one of the most diverse places I’ve served. Although there are few women in the Chaplain Corps, I’ve found it to be much more welcoming of women’s gifts and ministry than the lay church. I think our churches in the “real world” can learn from this attitude of hospitality and openness.
With liberty and justice for all
I’m sure my positive military experience is due in large part to the supervisors and colleagues I’ve worked with in the Chaplain Corps. Because of these leaders and teammates, I’ve never had to fight to make my voice heard as a women. I can’t say the same for all the civilian churches I’ve been a part of.
Because the military is a governmental organization, the expectation of equality is baked into my job description. However, it’s still important to note that the military doesn’t always live up to that ideal.
The system isn’t perfect, because the US military is still a reflection of culture, including its gender stereotypes and marginalization of women. It also certainly doesn’t mean women chaplains are represented in equal numbers to male chaplains. But it does means that there is a structure in place that is biased toward hearing my voice, not against. This has not been the case in many of the churches in my past—but I believe it should be.
A picture of the kingdom, in a chapel
Gender diversity is often a good barometer for other types of diversity as well. I’ve found when churches prioritize hearing masculine and feminine voices, there tends to be openness and inclusiveness in other areas as well.
This is one of the benefits of an egalitarian church. I’ve observed that they’re more likely to have people of all ages participating in the service, a variety of ethnicities represented in membership and leadership, and the ability to mingle across socio-economic status or ideology.
And these are all things I’ve found to be true in military chapels. Perhaps it’s the shared experience that the military brings, but I’ve observed that people seem to mix and meld easily through all these tiers of diversity.
Change through story
I’m not pointlessly singing the praises of the military chapel—I think we in the civilian world have a lot to learn from them. With so much fear and hate flying around in our culture, I’m convinced that the only way to inspire people toward love and openness is through relationship. The problem is, we like to entrench ourselves in our opinions and surround ourselves with people who think, look, and believe the same way we do. And that makes it very hard to recognize where we’ve failed to truly see others.
I think, for example, it becomes a lot harder to hold on to a belief that women should be silent in the church when you know a female minister. The church should encourage Christians to have these viewpoint-shifting experiences. Of course, gender diversity is not a cure-all for other ways the church fails to see marginalized groups, but it’s a start.
Convicted egalitarians should be concerned with equality for all people. I believe that a diverse congregation flows naturally from the implementation of equality for women.
When all of society is drawing their lines and saying, “in or out,” the church should be the one saying, “everyone in!” A lot of churches say that, but then have a hard time putting words into action.
Mandate from a higher power
Military chapels can’t say “in or out" because the government mandates that all are equal and all are welcome. I’m not suggesting some sort of governmental decree for civilian churches. Not only would that contradict separation of church and state, but we don’t need a governmental decree because we already have a decree—from a higher authority.
Jesus’ life, work, and words demonstrate this same principle. All may come to him, all are equal, and all are loved. If the church is the manifestation of Christ’s work in the world, we must fling our doors wide and say, “everyone in!” The same thing that has brought the military chapels such successful diversity—a mandate from the top down to embrace diversity—has also been the church’s mandate through all of history.
Our challenge—now, and always—is to put this mandate into meaningful action.