Brief History of the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel (PRCC)
By James C. Pakala, PRJC Chairman, for the Silver Anniversary dinner, 5 March 2002
On September 13, 1976 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) answered in the affirmative an overture from its Pacific Presbytery requesting a study to consider whether a joint commission with “sister Presbyterian denominations” or a PCA chaplain commission under the denomination’s Mission to the U.S. (MUS, now MNA/Mission to North America) should be formed to represent and supervise PCA chaplains better than was possible through the chaplain commission of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), through whose good services the young denomination had been securing endorsements for its chaplains. The PCA Moderator appointed a committee consisting of teaching elders J.P. Clark, E.A. Jussely, D.R. McCullough, J.E. Moore, and W.I. Philips, ruling elders E. Bolton, J. Campbell, and G. Sovereign, and alternates H. Langford and E. Fleming. This “Ad-interim Subcommittee on Chaplains” met in Montgomery, AL on February 17, 1977 with Clark as chair and Langford as recorder, but it already had corresponded with the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, other Presbyterian chaplain endorsing entities, and world missions and interchurch relations personnel of the PCA.
As a result of that meeting, the PCA Assembly later that year adopted several recommendations. It instructed its Committee on Interchurch Relations (with Chaplains Don Clements and W.I. Philips added as ex officio members) to study the possibility of a joint commission with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES). The PCA also stipulated that though its MUS eventually should handle “matters of denominational examination of candidates, [and] endorsement through a recognized Commission,” for the time being its Mission to the World (MTW) should “continue to examine and endorse chaplains to the Armed Services through the administrative offices of the NAE.” As a chaplain examined in 1974-75 by Westminster Presbytery and endorsed by the NAE, I do not recall interacting directly with MTW, but I was grateful for their oversight of this arena of ministry and their use of the NAE that, as it turned out, saved my endorsement process from serious snags, thanks to NAE expertise and clout.
In Seattle on December 5-6, 1977 the PCA (through Interchurch Relations auspices) sponsored a “working group” that met in response to the Assembly’s action as well as action by the 155th General Synod of the RPCES to “seek the cooperation of the OPC and PCA in establishing a joint Chaplains Commission.” The group consisted of D. Clements and D. Esty of the PCA, M. Stingley and P. Morison of the OPC, and W. Leonard and S. Leonard of the RPCES. Visitors were R. Bonner and D. Lee of the RPCES. Active duty chaplains at the time totaled 2 OPC (Foh and Lee), 6 PCA (Clements, Crocker, Good, Philips, Register, and Roberts), and 11 RPCES (Ackley, Baker, Case, Cross, Fiol, Greenwalt, Hegeman, Hubbard, Needham, Peterson, and Sidebotham). Correspondence from all three Chiefs of Chaplains indicated that having a joint commission would not adversely affect current chaplains or the placement of new chaplains.
The working group proposed a name and structure that became official in June 1978 when the Assemblies/Synod met in Grand Rapids and approved the commission that the group had proposed. This came to the OPC as Stated Clerk’s Recommendation 1, while the PCA’s approval occurred as part of the report from its Committee on Interchurch Relations. The RPCES Synod’s approval was part of its Chaplains Committee report, which specified that the Committee would designate the representatives. Robert Bonner, Bill Leonard, and John MacGregor were chosen. But the OPC and PCA Assemblies elected their representatives. The OPC named Elmer Dortzbach (though not among five initial candidates) and Dennis Prutow (with the class of 1981 temporarily vacant). The PCA appointed Don Clements, Jim Pakala, and ruling elder Tom Birr.
On September 21, 1978 the Commission’s initial meeting occurred at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis to form the new Presbyterian and Reformed Commission (the word “Joint” subsequently was added at OPC request). The RPCES had the most chaplains and brought the most expertise, ranging from broad experience with endorsements to recognition among the Chiefs of Chaplains. The PCA was only five years old but had initiated the idea, and could commit significant financial and logistical resources. Though it had few chaplains at the time, the OPC maintained the most ecumenical contacts with Reformed denominations globally.
In the early 1980s the U.S. military dropped its policy of requiring at least 100,000 members for an ecclesiastical body to begin endorsing chaplains on its own. In 1978, however, a key reason for the PRJC’s formation was the 100,000 threshold. With 102,362 members reported among the three denominations, Don Clements quipped “Thank God for the Coral Ridge Church” (with its 4,714 communicant members it had recently joined the PCA).
If ecumenicity and military requirements led to the PRJC’s founding, other reasons boosted its long-range credibility and growth. Rather than chaplains falling into the “lone ranger” syndrome as many from small denominations easily can, the PRJC chaplains had the benefit of a visible and highly experienced Executive Director to serve both formally as endorser/advocate and informally as mentor/shepherd during their years of service. Soon they also had PRJC retreats, increased chaplain awareness at General Assembly/Synod, stronger representation in Washington and also among other endorsing agencies, timely assistance with both routine and unusual situations, and a newsletter all their own (On Line began in 1983, followed by The Guardian in 1997). Few of these benefits would have been possible if each denomination had gone its own way.
In 1984 at the request of the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC) the PRJC granted a tentative endorsement to the Rev. Youn H. Kim and appointed Howard Cross and Lyman Smith to recommend an addition to the PRJC Constitution to permit chaplain endorsement for non-member denominations that are in doctrinal agreement and approved by the Commission. In 1996 the Korean Presbyterian Church in America (KPCA) became the second such denomination, joining the KAPC that blazed the trail a decade earlier.
By late 1985 the PRJC had taken increasing interest in non-military chaplaincies (even though not all require official endorsement, at least at the national level), but military chaplains remained focal. The number of OPC active duty chaplains had tripled from two (both Army) to six (4 Army; 2 Navy), with a seventh in process. With the RPCES chaplains now in the PCA as a result of “Joining and Receiving,” the PCA had thirty-four active duty chaplains (18 Army; 13 Navy; 3 USAF).
In 1987 the OPC and PCA General Assemblies approved, upon recommendation of the PRJC, the admission of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) as a member of the PRJC. This and other official business reaches the OPC and PCA Assemblies via their own Chaplains Commission and Mission to North America (MNA), respectively. In 1987 the PCA approved provisions for chaplains to baptize converts and see them, through a variety of means, placed in absentia as members of particular churches. The OPC had approved similar provisions.
In 1995, retired Army chaplain David Peterson succeeded William B. Leonard, Jr. as Executive Director. Bill, though part-time, had served essentially full-time since 1978. The position, with its dual role as MNA Coordinator of Chaplain Ministries, now was officially full-time. The budget mushroomed, but God provided all the funds. The PRJC appointed two largely volunteer Associate Directors to help especially with visiting chaplains: retired Navy chaplain Stan Beach and retired USAF chaplain Beryl Hubbard. Just as Dave Peterson did, they attained the highest rank in their service branches (apart from the Chief of Chaplains office) and they brought high recognition.
By 2001, the PCA had 74 active duty chaplains (44 Army; 20 Navy; 10 USAF) plus 10 Army National Guard, 2 Air National Guard, 20 Army Reserve, 7 Navy Reserve, and 4 USAF Reserve chaplains. Its chaplains in Veterans Administration hospitals numbered 8 (6 full-time). Over 50 other PCA chaplains were serving either full-time or part-time in a wide variety of settings such as businesses, prisons, medical centers, retirement homes, the Civil Air Patrol, and local police departments or fire companies. The OPC had a total of 8 active and 3 reserve military chaplains plus at least 4 in other institutional settings. The other denominations listed mainly military chaplains as follows: RPCNA – 2 active duty, 2 reserve; KAPC – 4 active duty and 1 prison; and KPCA – 1 active duty. One of the ongoing challenges of the PRJC is to identify and minister to, in whatever ways feasible, more of the part-time and/or volunteer chaplains that are serving in local settings without the need for a formal ecclesiastical endorsement process.
This history is based on minutes of the PRJC and of the OPC, PCA, and RPCES. Issues of the PRJC’s periodical titled On Line (mentioned above) also provided help.
October 2008 update
At its last annual meeting, the PRJC received the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC) as a full member , and voted to begin endorsing for the United Reformed Presbyterian Churches in North America (as an Affiliate Member of the PRJC). The PRJC currently endorses a total 205 chaplains, made up of 150 military chaplains, and 65 civilian chaplains. The PRJC Commission, and each of its member denomination General Assemblies and Synod selected retired US Army Chaplain Brigadier General Douglas E. Lee to succeed retiring David P. Peterson as the Executive Director for the PRJC, and MNA Chaplain Ministries Coordinator (respectively).
In June 2012, the name was officially changed to Presbyterian & Reformed Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel (PRCC). In October 2017, Jim Carter succeeded Doug Lee.
PRCC Administrative Assistant
History of the PRCC
Updated on June 15, 2020
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