As part of Chappy Week celebrations throughout QLD we’re shining a spotlight and highlighting the roles of Chaplains who work across various industries. Major Renton McRae is a chaplain in the Defence Force, based at Enoggera Barracks and he shares his story with us.
Army Life – foreword by Charissa Steffens
At seventeen, fresh from school, my brother enlisted in the Army. My fifteen-year-old girl brain thought he was crazy! Who in their right mind would sign away their life to get yelled at all day long?
The years went fast and he was often away for long stretches. It was a challenging time for him and one anchor he could hold to was the army chaplain.
Soldiering is a unique role. Nowhere else are you are trained to obey every command, to the point of death. This intensity can bear heavily upon its carriers. For this reason, the role of a chaplain in the Defence Forces is vital.
Chaplains like Major Renton McRae feel called to serve in this unique culture, with the belief that they can make a difference amongst the ranks. I recently caught up with Major McRae to talk about how he became a Chaplain and the role of a Chaplain in the armed forces today.
Carrying the Call
Renton grew up in a Christian family, his mother a devout Baptist. However, his dad was an alcoholic who passed away when Renton was only 19.
“I had two extremes in my parents” he recalls “But I have always known the Lord since I was young and I felt a strong call on my life since I was 16 years old”, he shares. “Looking back, I would say that as a young teenager there were two influences that shaped my desire to join the army.” He reflects fondly about the Boys Brigade Captain from his church, an ex-solider. “He looked out for me and I admired him, I guess I wanted to emulate him.”
The second influence was far more devastating. As a young 15 year old, Renton remembers seeing the Iranian Embassy being taken by terrorists and watching the SAS storm the building. “It was an intense event and it shaped my life, I basically said ‘that is what I want to do’ and I wanted to join the SAS… and that is what I did.” It was shortly after this that Renton felt a call from God to serve Him and he rationalised that if he was going to be in the Army, that being a chaplain would be how.
At 17 he joined up with a strong sense of God’s call on his life. He served for seven years in the infantry then applied to join the SAS, and was selected for the elite team. After serving in this role, Renton persisted with his vision to become a chaplain and left the army to attend a theological college. He then worked for the Churches of Christ as a minister and pastored congregations for many years.
This is the path that most army chaplains follow, the defence services usually draw their chaplains from the clergy and thus Renton had to leave the barrack walls behind. “We don’t usually take chaplains in the army when they are young, people need a good amount of life experience and ministry experience to be effective”, he explains. It was during this seventeen year break from the army that Renton, and his wife Leonie, had their four children.
Being away from the discipline of army life for that long, it may seem tempting to not return, particularly with a family to consider. Not for Renton, “I always knew that it was critical to my life and learning to do that time out of the army. I didn’t reflect on the time away too much, I always knew the dream was there.”
“I had a view that a chaplain should have grey hair, they were like a father figure, so I was content with the idea that it is was down the track. That was my perception and I was busy in the present with family, church, and life.”
A Life of Honour
In 2006 Renton returned to the army and took up his role as a chaplain. A role that is varied and focuses not just on spiritual matters but also on welfare, counselling, and teaching. “A large part of what we do is to help develop the soldiers. Soldiers need strong emotional resilience and relationship skills.”
Another focus for the army, and one that Renton has seen dramatically change since the 1980’s has been the area of abuse. “Up until the last decade the army has traditionally been characterised by bad drinking and poor behaviour. Over the past decade that has been seriously addressed.
He becomes sombre as he talks about this vital issue. “Whether it has been alcohol abuse or the treatment of women, the defence force has become the model government agency in which policy is applied. In every way, the armed forces image is one of trying to bring honour to the Australian people, there have been major shifts and changes in the culture of defence.”
One of the most powerful roles a chaplain fulfils is the one of advocate. “Soldiering is still a very tough environment, the chain of command is vital and only a chaplain, with wisdom, can move within that system of command to advocate for a solider.” Renton explains that the authoritarian nature of the institution can be “brutal to a young solider.”
This can lead to personal issues as the burdens upon a solider impact upon their identity and purpose. “It is a demanding system and it is meant to be, it is training people for war. It is discipline based and bound by regulations and laws – navigating that can be extremely hard, so a chaplain can help people manage issues in life, in relationships, in career, and in their sense of meaning and purpose,” Renton explains with great compassion in his voice.
To be a defence forces chaplain is a noble calling and one that many find attractive however, Renton makes it clear that it is not a “normal job”. “You must sign up and become a defence member and it is important to understand what that means. You are volunteering to give up your freedom”, he frankly affirms.
“All the skills of ministry are needed but it is more, it has a huge impact on your life and family life. The nature of defence is unique, we are training to kill, we are equipping people to fight and defend a country. That shapes the culture. A chaplain must work within that structure. It really is a calling not just another job option.”
As I finish our interview, I reflect upon Renton’s journey and I find my heart full of respect for him and the many others. Those who are willing to answer this call. It is a call of honour, a call to give all for others, a call that reflects the very heart of Jesus when he said there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)
Charissa Steffens is a teacher, writer, and speaker. She is the former editor of Indulge Magazine and still enjoys writing about faith and family at her blog She Matters (www.shematters.com.au). Charissa is actively involved as an elder and leader at Nexus Church in Brisbane. Her two precious children and has been married to David for many a moon. She loves cooking shows and coffee!