MILITARY CHAPLAINS MINISTER WORLDWIDE

—U.S. Navy Promotes PTS Alumna Margaret Grun Kibben to Chaplain of the Marine Corps;
Calling Takes Her from an Eighth Grade Retreat to First Woman Chaplain to Be Rear Admiral—

BY ROGER SHAPIRO

All photographs are courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Download article as pdf

Princeton Seminary has a rich history of preparing men and women who become military chaplains, serving on battlefields and bases around the world. That legacy began with one of the school’s founders, the Reverend John Woodhull, who was a pastor at the 1778 Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey during the American Revolutionary War.

And it continued with hundreds of alumni/ae, like the Reverend Charles Stewart (Certificate of Graduation, 1821), who helped create the U.S. Navy’s Chaplaincy Corps, George Rentz (Certificate of Graduation, 1909), the only World War II navy chaplain to earn the Navy Cross, and Sam Baez (M.Div., 1960; Th.M., 1976), who was among the first sailors in Vietnam.

And now there is Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben (M.Div., 1986; D.Min., 2002), a pioneer in her own right, who is the eighteenth Chaplain of the Marine Corps, and the first woman to hold that service’s highest rank for chaplains.

“I can’t tell you how honored I am. I have the privilege of seeing chaplains and Religious Program Specialists do real work. They are in the muck and mire. I see their enthusiasm. I pray with them. I love this work,” said Kibben, reflecting on twenty-five years of service to both God and country.
She was promoted to this prestigious rank July 9, 2010, and also serves as deputy chief of navy chaplains, the U.S. Navy’s second highest chaplain. A decorated naval officer, Kibben manages all chaplains assigned to the U.S. Marines, regardless of their rank or location. The U.S. Navy provides clergy and medical staff to the Marine Corps, because these roles are noncombatants, while all marines are classified as infantry first and carry weapons.

The road to her new post took Kibben through many battlefields, bases, and schools. But in many respects, it was a straight line from the day an eighth grader in Warrington, Pennsylvania, had a revelation. “My path was a bit different. In the eighth grade, I knew I wanted to be a minister. I knew at that age what my work would be,” she said.

At that time, her family worshipped at Neshaminy Warwick Presbyterian Church in Hartsville, Pennsylvania. “We had an associate pastor, Blair Monie (M.Div., 1973; D.Min., 1979), who was our youth minister. I remember going on a retreat and thinking about how I was always one of those kids anyone could talk to. As I sat around the campfire and watched Blair, I decided then that I wanted to do what he does.”

Her navy calling took shape at the same time. Her father had retired from the U.S. Navy and taught her about the love of service to the country. And one of her best friends in high school had entered the U.S. Naval Academy. Before her senior year, Kibben visited her friend during his plebe, or freshman, summer. “I went to visit and saw the chapel. I loved the whole concept of combining two callings and decided to become a navy chaplain. That was a very exciting summer for me because I knew making that decision then was unusual, so I was certain it had to be a calling,” she said.

To pursue her double calling, Kibben earned her M.Div. at PTS in 1986. While at Princeton, she joined the navy through its Seminary Theology Student Program. Department of Defense requirements for military chaplains include an endorsement by the chaplain’s faith group, two years experience as a minister, a master’s degree, and at least seventy hours of seminary classes. With the student program, Kibben qualified for her two years of ministerial experience with on-the-job training as a chaplain candidate.

She progressed through the ranks, taking on many tours and responsibilities, as well as continuing her education, which included earning her D.Min. at Princeton Seminary in 2002. {See page 29 for an overview of her career.} Across her assignments, she supported people by using the listening skills she identified in high school. And there was the foundation she developed at Princeton Seminary.

“So much of my life’s work has been built with tools I got at Princeton Seminary—tools to develop a framework for preaching and the ability to counsel others. No one course got me through a particular tour. But I knew I had the grounding and foundation to serve,” she said.
Some tours were in stateside chapels and schools. Others were in Turkey, Norway, and Afghanistan, where she learned firsthand the challenges of ministering in combat.

For example, she talks about World Communion Sunday in Afghanistan in 2006. “I had a very rewarding worship service that day. It was lively, powerful, and deep. People asked hard questions. And we had Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) going off. To be in worship and have RPGs fired at you while you worship God, that, to me, creates real faith.”

Another story involves a convoy of Humvees. An explosion ripped through two trucks, destroying them and the service members inside. The lieutenant colonel began a recovery operation. “We were picking up the pieces of both the Humvees and the people. The officer became obsessive; that’s how he reacted. He had to have us get every piece. The problem was, when security forces told us to leave the area because another attack was imminent, he could not divorce himself from the situation. My role was to say, ‘We’ve got it. You need to lead your people out of here and into safety.’ Was that a sermon? No. But it was my work to help someone deal with a situation.”

She has many stories of helping sailors and marines. “For me, it meant being alongside people who were frightened, being with people who were wounded, saying prayers over the dead, helping people with the boredom of deployment. I was able to serve people because I was in the muck with everyone else.”
How does a minister prepare for such situations? “These are not things you learn in a seminary. A lot of it is intuition,” said Kibben. “But that’s not fair because intuition is too human. There’s a divine element to this. One has to be attuned to how the Spirit directs you at those moments.”
Her success also comes from her calling to serve as an officer. She understands the commitment and focus it takes to volunteer to serve in the armed forces. And with the pride she has in her naval career, combined with the tours she’s had in various theaters, she can connect better with people dealing with difficult situations.

“I see marines at work. I see who they are. Their love for this country is just phenomenal. They trust in what we value—peace, human rights, literacy, flowing water—we, as a country, value these things and they know that. So they are willing to give their lives to provide them. My work transcends just country. I believe God wants people to have human rights and to live in peace. And God uses the government and military to bring people what he would like his kingdom to be,” said Kibben.

Those beliefs underlie her commitment to both God and country. Sometimes that work is seen during a sermon to a packed chapel. And sometimes it comes from being a trusted listener. Kibben said, “We spend a lot of time working with sailors and marines after a firefight. They might talk about losing a buddy, for example. There’s tremendous guilt when you can’t save your buddy. Or when you survive and wonder if you didn’t give enough and that’s why you are alive. We listen and help them deal with forgiveness, grace, and the reality of death. Often, they are so young and have never dealt with death and mortality. We’re helping them grow and mature and integrate these things into their world.”

Those experiences are very real for more than five thousand men and women who combine their callings and minister as military chaplains. Today, that includes 118 PTS alumni/ae who are armed forces chaplains.

In her current role, Kibben also looks at bigger management issues. She oversees 282 navy chaplains assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps, making sure they are trained, meet requirements, and serve the needs of marines. She’s also looking at strategic issues impacting America’s military readiness. “We ask questions like What role does religion play? How can we help the Marine Corps address very big issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicide, Combat Operational Stress, etc.? And I’m still a chaplain. I support officers and others looking for pastoral care,” she said.

Whether it’s helping a fellow officer in Washington DC, or a marine going into the night in Afghanistan, Kibben said the work is not easy. Nonetheless, she can’t see herself doing anything else. “There has not been one duty tour that I didn’t like. The work is very rewarding. Every tour helped me prepare for the next tour.”

And, of course, it helps that she had such a solid foundation. “The Seminary was the foundation for me. There was fellowship, a wealth of ideas, and learning. For me, it was the opening of this incredible treasure chest of stuff I knew was all mine. Even sharing it didn’t take it away from me. If the call to ministry in my eighth grade was my baptism, Princeton Theological Seminary was my confirmation,” she said.

Roger Shapiro is a freelance writer who worked in the PTS Communications/Publications Office for several months.


 

CHAPLAINS AT THE FOREFRONT

REFLECTIONS ON WAR AND PEACE ON CHAPLAINS DAY