Gerald Hutchinson, CBF’s endorser of chaplains and pastoral counselors, is making the rounds at General Assembly in Atlanta this week. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)
Gerald Hutchinson, CBF’s endorser of chaplains and pastoral counselors, is making the rounds at General Assembly in Atlanta this week. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)

Chaplains have edge in post-Christian age, CBF official says

Gerald F. Hutchinson Jr. says the pluralistic populations served by chaplains and pastoral counselors give those ministers vital experience in dealing with Americans who have little or no faith background.

By Jeff Brumley

Like many U.S. religious groups, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship faces a constant challenge to find and offer ministries that are relevant in a post-Christian society.  

Navy Capt. Gerald F. Hutchinson, Jr. will offer what he sees as part of the solution during CBF’s General Assembly this week: chaplains and pastoral counselors.

Those ministers have long served interdenominational and interfaith populations on military bases, in prisons and in hospitals. The military settings, especially, feature communities with high percentages of young people with little or no spiritual backgrounds or interest, said Hutchinson, chaplaincy and pastoral care services manager.

“They are a step ahead because they work in a very pluralistic setting where they have to serve people of different faiths, or of none,” Hutchinson told ABPnews/Herald today before the kickoff of General Assembly.

Hutchinson, on the job since January, is introducing himself to the Fellowship gathered in Atlanta this week and promoting the contributions his flock makes to the cause of being missional to the world. On Friday he’ll host a luncheon featuring author and ABPnews/Herald senior columnist David Gushee, who will speak about ministry in a post-Christian age.

That will be followed by a discussion of the experience chaplains and pastoral counselors have in that kind of setting, Hutchinson said.

“We want to engage the audience about challenges and best practices,” Hutchinson said.

Pinnacle of a career

Hutchinson has spent most of the past six months fielding calls from prospective chaplains and pastoral counselors and attending CBF state assemblies.

One of his goals this week is to meet more of the Fellowship and many of his own chaplains and pastoral counselors. “For some folks it will be their first chance to meet me.”

Hutchinson served 25 years as a Navy Reserve chaplain before retiring in May. Though a reservist, he was called to active duty on different occasions. Those included a deployment to Afghanistan with a Marine Corps aviation unit and to a multinational base in Africa.

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“That was the pinnacle of my Navy career — all reservists train for active duty,” he said.

Leaving the service wasn’t easy, he added. “I did enjoy every moment of it and I’ve been grieving” since retirement.

But being a reservist also meant having civilian jobs, and Hutchinson’s were mostly in churches. Formerly with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home (now North American) Mission Board, he has served as the minister of outreach and administration at Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta and as associate pastor at Culpeper (Va.) Baptist Church, about half-way between Charlottesville and Washington.

Hutchinson said he’s spending his first year as manager of chaplaincy and pastoral care getting to know his endorsees. He praised his predecessor, George Pickle, and Pickle’s assistant, Jim Pope.

“I inherited a wonderful foundation from George and Jim,” he said.

‘Great progress’

One of those men’s greatest achievements was helping elevate the profile of chaplains and pastoral counselors, who until 2013 were not included in the annual commissioning service held at General Assembly. He also praised CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter for championing that cause after her election in 2013.

Chaplains and pastoral counselors have enjoyed recognition at the state level, as well. Hutchison said that ministry has been the topic of workshops and breakouts at the half dozen or so state assemblies he’s attended this year.

“I see great progress in that area.”

‘Easing my grief’

Some CBF-endorsed chaplains say they feel equally good about Hutchinson.

One of Hutchison’s jobs is to endorse chaplains, meaning grant official CBF recognition of the gifts and training of a ministry to serve as a chaplain or pastoral counselor. This is required by the military and most institutions that employ them.

And that makes the endorser something of a minister to the chaplains and pastoral counselors, said Maj. Charles Seligman, a CBF-endorsed Air Force chaplain based in Texas.

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“My endorser has always been my chaplain,” Seligman said Wednesday in Atlanta. “Moving around so much, I don’t get to have the home-church experience and the pastor.”

Hutchinson started off with a lot of respect among the range of CBF-endorsed chaplains and pastoral counselors because he has both military and civilian ministry experience, and has training in social work.

“And he was selected by the people he’s representing,” Seligman said about the search panel that helped pick Hutchinson for the position.

Hutchinson said it’s that part of the job that has helped most with his transition from military to civilian work.

“This role allows me to be chaplain to the chaplains and pastoral counselors,” he said. “This has been easing my grief.”