Civil Air Patrol chaplains answer a lofty calling

Chaplain George S. Kelly prays with CAP search pilots prior to a sortie. Photo: George Kelly.

9 January 2013 | Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, USA. Sporadically C-141 Starlifters, Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports and General Dynamics/Boeing F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter-bombers took wing. Whenever they did so, the din threatened to drown out  the daytime Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Chaplain Conference lectures. Undaunted by the background noise, the senior U.S. Air Force (USAF) chaplain on the base shared details relating to chaplaincy with the assembled CAP chaplains.

Chinook helicopters fly in to collect 101st Airborne soldiers. Photo - USA Spc. Mary L. Gonzalez, CJTF-101 Public Affairs
Chinook helicopters fly in to collect 101st Airborne soldiers. Photo – USA Spc. Mary L. Gonzalez, CJTF-101 Public Affairs.


The officer began by speaking of an unnamed American soldier. The GI, armed with a venerable M-14 rifle, died after exiting a Boeing Chinook helicopter and engaging Taliban forces on a mountainside covered with snow and ice. Following the sobering story, the chaplain explained the military’s policy regarding widows and widowers. On a subsequent day a civilian employee of the U.S. Coast Guard addressed at length the topic of “Critical Incident” stress and related counseling techniques. It was all part of an annual CAP Chaplains conference. Although the aforementioned events took place a decade ago, similar gatherings of chaplains regularly take place.

During peacetime and times of armed conflict, the men and women of the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Service and their civilian, noncombatant CAP colleagues strive to serve their military and civilian charges. (Note: Civil Air Patrol members are designated as “U.S. Air Force Auxiliary” personnel when directly performing their domestic missions under directives from the USAF.”)

USAF Chaplain Service Display at the NMUSAF. Photo - John Stemple
USAF Chaplain Service Display at the NMUSAF. Photo: John T. Stemple.

Cain, as recorded in Genesis 4:9, asked a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Regardless of the chaplains’ religious affiliations, the answer is “Yes!” With that in mind, the CAP Chaplain Service regularly aims to provide for the religious and spiritual needs of senior members, cadets and their families. CAPP 265-1 (E) also indicates that chaplains “bring a healing presence in the midst of chaos and tragedy.” So, in the aftermath of major events CAP chaplains comply by comforting victims of disasters, survivors, support relief workers and family members who have had a relative injured or killed.

Furthermore, these clergy are, as CAP Pamphlet 265-1 (E) states, “part of a select group of civic-minded religious leaders.” Since moral leadership is a required component for CAP cadets, chaplains and their Character Development Instructor assistants have opportunities to shape the characters of future leaders.

Lt. Col. Kelly mans a recruiting table. Photo - George Kelly
Lt. Col. Kelly mans a recruiting table. Photo:  George Kelly.

In a response to questions, Lt. Col. George S. Kelly, a CAP chaplain since 1990, explained that the “duties of a CAP chaplain are the same as any pastor.” His or her typical duties include preaching, teaching, baptisms, weddings, visiting the sick and officiating at funerals. Mr. Kelly emphasized that in the military and CAP the chaplain is “the unit commander’s resource and adviser in matters of ethics, morals and spiritual considerations.” To complete his point, he said, “This necessarily requires that chaplains know the customs and holy days of all faiths.”

Chaplain Kelly prays with a ground search team. Photo - George Kelly
Chaplain Kelly prays with a ground search team. Photo: George Kelly.

Chaplain Kelly then explained that a “chaplain has no church congregation while on duty because he or she ministers to individuals of all faiths as well as to those possessing no particular faith.” He added, “Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence, just being there. Someone once described chaplaincy as pastoring a parade. People come and people go. You minister to them in the hour of their need.” Such fluidity can be discouraging to the provider. However, George Kelly relies upon Christian Scripture for encouragement and solace. One such verse is 2 Timothy 2:2. It commands the faithful as follows: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”

A Civil Air Patrol Gippsland Aeronautics GA-8 "Airvan" on takeoff during a mission following Hurricane Rita in 2005. Photo - U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung
A Civil Air Patrol Gippsland Aeronautics GA-8 “Airvan” on takeoff during a mission following Hurricane Rita in 2005. Photo – U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung.

Social and cultural changes are affecting both the military and CAP. Chaplains’ efforts to comply with recent directives can be difficult and at times the demands produce internal conflicts. Addressing recent trends, Lt. Col. Kelly stated the following: “Ministering in a politically correct and pluralistic environment is a challenge.” Chaplain Kelly provided three specific examples.

Firstly “Military and CAP chaplains endorsed by traditionally conservative faith movements are now facing issues created by regulations that now permit openly homosexual persons to serve and others that authorize same-sex marriage ceremonies.” George continued, “Some escape from the dilemmas of conscious exists. This is because chaplains are currently not required to perform any ministry function that is not compatible with their religious beliefs and those of the entity which endorsed them.”

The second example provided by Lt. Col. Kelly is that chaplains endorsed by evangelical denominations may not conclude prayers by adding the standard wording “in the name of Jesus.” Chaplain Kelly added, “This is not a problem in Protestant worship services, but at Command and interfaith functions chaplains must simply conclude with ‘Amen’ instead of a reference to Jesus.” Finally, he said, “There are always forces seeking to eliminate or restrict military and associated chaplaincies.”

For Chaplain Kelly and the CAP Chaplain Service, their work is fructifying. The satisfaction one receives defies description. An allusion to the famous sonnet High Flight enables one to sense the awe and reverence chaplains possess. The author, an American Supermarine Spitfire fighter pilot, inspiringly wrote about sensing the ability to put out his hand and touch “the face of God.” In a sense CAP chaplains are joining hands with God and making life a little better for the souls they encounter through their service.

CAP Chaplain George Kelly displays a CAP Chaplain Service brochure. Photo - George Kelly
CAP Chaplain George Kelly displays a CAP Chaplain Service brochure. Photo: George Kelly.

Due to the importance and nature of their work, CAP chaplains must meet the same high qualification standards as those within the U.S. Armed Forces. Indeed, applicants for chaplaincy typically must obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement from a religious agency or official recognized by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. In addition, those applying must usually possess an accredited undergraduate and graduate degree earned through a seminary or religious college or university.

Readers should note that chaplaincy is just one facet of the CAP. Members perform non-combatant missions and tasks. CAP estimates that the nonprofit organization undertakes some 85% of domestic search and rescue missions. Additionally, in the aftermath of natural disasters CAP has performed aerial surveys of the affected areas, assisted with the control of airspace, staffed aid stations and even delivered mail.

Individuals who wish to explore opportunities with the CAP Chaplain Service may contact the National Staff Chaplains office at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. These inquirers may send an e-mail to or telephone (334) 953-6002. People desiring information relating to other specialties should contact a local squadron or CAP Headquarters at (877) 227-9142.

The author (John T. Stemple) thanks Lt. Col. George S. Kelly for graciously granting an interview and providing personal photographs. Dr. Edward DeVries, who is the President of the online School of Biblical & Theological Studies (SB&TS), also provided an answer to a specific question. He kindly explained how Christian candidates for chaplaincy, who may be in need of additional academic credit or certification, may attain these educational requirements through his institution and others.

Source Cited

CAPP 265-1 (E)