by MICHAEL OTTO
When Rev. Lance Lukin walks into a room, wearing his military garb, the image of Fr Francis Mulcahy from the TV series M.A.S.H springs to mind.
While there may be a certain physical likeness, the Principal Chaplain of
the New Zealand Defence Force says his role is rather different from that of the Mulcahy character.
Sure, there’s a similar concern for the pastoral care and spiritual wellbeing
of others. But there’s also the administrative, educational, policy development and personnel management requirements, as well a myriad of other
tasks, that go with Rev. Lukin’s job.
It makes for a diverse, challenging and rewarding vocation.
Rev. Lukin, who is an Anglican minister, has to ensure a chaplaincy “capability” is delivered to the defence force throughout New Zealand and overseas, in camps and on deployment. That means 25 regular force chaplains now, plus about 10 reserve chaplains, which includes all the Catholic chaplains, as well as other ministers who can slot in if needed.
But when pressed as to what is at the heart of a New Zealand Defence Force
chaplains’ role, Rev. Lukin’s answer is succinct. “Working with people.”
“Our role is effectively to be the minister, the chaplain, the helper, the person who is available to all in the defence force.”
This care is provided regardless of faith and creed, gender identity and belief system.
It can manifest itself in relationship counselling, being there for grief and
trauma, teaching about parenting and ethics, as well as advising command and
having a ceremonial role.
But it is also a vocation that can take a minister to places — mental,
physical and spiritual — that test the mettle: places of fear, tension, combat
Rev. Lukin admits that “deadly force is always a possibility with regard to
One might think this is a difficult admission for a Christian minister, so he
quickly adds a rider. “The reality is, for a New Zealand soldier, to get to a point of pulling a trigger, they would have gone through a whole heap of checks in their mind as to: Does this meet the outcomes of New Zealand, is this a right thing to do, is this the absolutely last resort?”
The use of deadly force in modern military operations isn’t as it appears
in the movies, Rev. Lukin said.
“Death is not actually as pleasant as that, particularly [with] some of the
modern firearms,” he said.
And decisions made as a last resort, under combat stress, can have longlasting
effects, even for experienced service people.
And sometimes the chaplains have to be there to help them work through what has happened.
“In the warfare that we have been involved in, particularly in Afghanistan,
what we would normally think of as an assailant is someone who is wearing a
uniform . . . similar age to us.
“But when we are talking about 16-, 17-year-old kids with guns, and from a
distance that our firearms can shoot, and you are coming into an assault
operation, and you shoot someone and you go up and find out this is a
16-year-old kid, and if you have got a 16-year-old kid at home, suddenly that
throws you into a whole different sort of place [as a soldier].
“So we [chaplains] . . . deal with people in that sort of capacity, after the
fact, when they start processing what has occurred.”
But Rev. Lukin said the reality is the New Zealand Defence Force does not seek to enter situations and take lives.
“If we have got to the point of actually having to take a life, we have
failed all of the other things that we are trying to achieve.
“And New Zealand is not about, as a country, and as a defence force which meets the outputs of New Zealand, we are not about aggression. We are about peaceful resolution, which is why we are involved with the United Nations.”
Rev. Lukin has been in Afghanistan on deployment, so he is not speaking from a distance.
In those situations, chaplains’ services were much in demand.
“When I was in Afghanistan, everyone was required by military law to see the psychologist before they came home for a debrief. No one was required to see the chaplain before they came home for a debrief.
“Everyone came and saw me,” he said.
Maybe it is because of the particular role of the military, but Rev. Lukin believes New Zealand’s military personnel have, by and large, a more “spiritual connection” than people in the mainstream.
“That’s my impression anyway, because people may not adhere to a faith, may not profess a faith, may not attend chapel, but if a death happens, they
want the padre there, and they want prayers said.
“If someone dies, they want the room to be blessed.
“There are things that happen that wouldn’t happen outside and people wouldn’t even think about, but it is part of the culture of what it means to be part of the NZDF.”
Defence force chaplains in New Zealand receive training to be effective in
For instance, they are trained in suicide prevention, and also learn about
combat care and counsel, the latter through an American programme that
looks at complicated grief, and issues around post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In our time in Afghanistan, obviously the chaplains are the main welfare
provider, the main counsellor, the main person who is there when things go wrong, particularly when we have a traumatic death, as we did over a number of the later missions, and the chaplains had a very particular role.
“[But] the reality is that it doesn’t have to be in Afghanistan where [traumatic] things happen,” Rev. Lukin said.
“We had three chaplains managing the morgue in Christchurch after the earthquake. Everybody that came in, the forensic teams would work to identify
“The chaplains worked with the forensic teams to support them, but also
to provide a service of prayer for everybody, every victim that came in. Now,
our chaplains saw some pretty horrific things, as you can imagine.
“So they all have supervision, they all have spiritual direction, we are very
careful to monitor and to ensure we are monitoring them for any signs of
But the “gene pool” for military chaplains is getting older, Rev. Lukin
said, meaning it is harder to source candidates who can meet the NZDF’s
physical and mental requirements, as well as having the requisite training
and pastoral experience. But regardless of denominational identity, ministry is “across the board” for an NZDF chaplain.
“That said, if someone comes to me for a wedding and they say they are
Roman Catholic, I will not marry them as an Anglican,” Rev. Lukin said.
“I would ensure that we get a Roman Catholic priest or chaplain to assist that
individual, because we know that there are denominational requirements.
“If they come and want to get married [in] a particular faith group we will
work towards that.”
Rev. Lukin, who has an honorary rank of colonel, takes pride in the fact
that the NZDF has recently won awards for equity and diversity in the military
worldwide, as well as for being an equitable employer.
“The GLBTI community within the defence force has effectively said that
[if] anyone from their community . . . is struggling with a life issue, they will send them to the chaplains because they know that the chaplains will care
for them with love and grace and will not judge them, but will give them effective support.
“And I look at that and say, ‘That’s fantastic’.”
Why this level of trust in chaplains in the military?
“[Personnel] just see us as the people to go to if you have a need or an issue.”
In a corner of the imagination, there’s an image of Fr Mulcahy somewhere
nodding in agreement.