By S. Daniel Smith
It’s 12:55 p.m. onboard the USS Hué City (CG 66) in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on a hot, muggy Sunday. While Ensign Brittany Stalzer makes her final preparations to start the Protestant lay-led services, the loudspeaker crackles to life and the boatswain’s mate says, “Lay Protestant services will be held in the training room at 1300. Maintain silence in the vicinity of the training room.”
Stalzer looks disappointed. She had asked them to say that all hands were invited to attend, but they stuck with the long-accepted phrasing instead. She puts on a minister’s face for the sailors who have shown up early, and soon her disappointment melts away.
While Stalzer has a job as a division officer and thus fills an important leadership position in the organizational chart, she also supports her sailors as a qualified lay leader. Her tasks include setting up services, supporting any chaplain who leads the primary service (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic), and representing her faith to the crew.
When no chaplain of a given religious affiliation is available, a lay leader can preside at services, assuming an ecclesiastical body has endorsed the sailor and the sailor has been trained and is qualified, according to the military’s instruction on the topic. On most Sunday afternoons, like this one, she begins by focusing the attention of the dozen or so sailors with the call to worship from the Book of Common Prayer.
Sailors’ pastoral needs range from developing spiritual health to showing them the love of Christ and inviting them to become a member of the greater Church. Any official counseling required by a service member is referred to a chaplain, as lay leaders are not authorized to conduct counseling.
For Petty Officer Katharyn Dembowski in the fire control division, a welcoming attitude is crucial. “I want to feel as welcomed as possible,” she said. “I know everyone lives with sins and they will be judged by them eventually, but I want to feel like I can walk in someplace and make genuine friends without them wanting to change my life.”
“Content and how welcoming the environment is” are the most important factors, said Petty Officer Micah Arrington, who hopes to be a full-time youth minister after completing his time in the Navy. “I think it can feel awkward for people, because we all have a tendency to fall short out here, so if it’s not very welcoming and easygoing then people will shy away. With content, you have to take it slow and not bash people over the head with how much they are off due to the same reason.”
For the most part, that is exactly Stalzer’s mission as a lay leader on the ship. “Ultimately growing the community is my purpose, but also providing a place where people can take their mind off work and deployment and focus on their spirituality and relationship with God tops my priority list,” she said.
Filling these disparate needs is not easy. Stalzer, and other lay leaders on ships and shore stations around the country, is essentially a bivocational minister. As a junior officer, she has at least one watch rotation each day, which means being on her feet for five hours on the bridge of her ship, guiding the vessel through the ocean.
She must also attend briefings, and she works on qualifications. Becoming a Surface Warfare Officer is one of the most important gest qualifications for a junior officer to attain. That qualification is the officer capstone project for the first tour on board a ship. Stalzer managed to earn her qualification while filling all of her roles.
Despite the struggle of everyday life as a busy junior officer, “when the main lay leader asked if I was religious, and if I wanted to be a lay leader, it was a no-brainer,” Stalzer said. “I was coming straight from college, where I served on my college’s steering committee. I wanted to continue my service in some form or another.” Being one of the ship’s lay leaders was a perfect fit.
Stalzer understands that it takes a team to make everything work. In today’s diverse Navy, she knows she has to be more than just an Episcopal lay leader; she has to be a Christian pointing others to the love of Christ. Making that work on smaller ships like hers takes cooperation with other lay leaders.
“Our group utilized the strengths of each of our lay leaders to give our service more energy,” she said of her recent deployment. “We had one member reflect on the readings, another guide the music, and I led the worship. By the time we worked out some kinks, we had a full service that provided the energy that the crew needed.”
For sailors who have benefited, the result is clear. Petty Officer Jacob Carpenter wanted to “learn about God and his Word and that’s exactly what I got.” Sailors like Carpenter make up the largest population on the ship, so meeting their pastoral needs is crucial for a lay leader’s success.
Whether Stalzer will make a longer call of this effort is yet to be seen. “As of right now,” she told TLC, “I’ve questioned myself extensively about becoming a priest.” Options for Stalzer include becoming a Navy chaplain if she chooses to pursue seminary and ordination after completing her current duties.
Daniel Smith is a freelance writer and a career Navy officer who lives in San Diego with his wife, son, and two daughters. He writes at sdanielsmith.com.