Pete Olds is a Baptist chaplain with the Royal New Zealand Navy. This is his story.
What was your background prior to becoming a navy chaplain?
I began my working career as a ships’ joiner at HMNZ Dockyard, in Devonport, in 1985. I left at the completion of my apprenticeship and worked as a cabinetmaker for a couple of high‑end furniture makers before leaving my trade to train for ministry at Carey Baptist College in 1994. After graduating at the end of 1996, I was called to Balmoral Baptist and started ministry there on 1st April 1997. I was there until mid‑2006 when I entered into the Navy and commenced my officer training.
What led you into chaplaincy?
I was lucky in my church experience in that I was part of a permission‑giving and diverse congregation. They were passionate about mission and serious about equipping people for ministry. Being a sleeves-rolled-up kind of person, I was also naturally drawn to practical models of service and grounded expressions of faith.
One of my closest peers during my time at Carey was Mike Subritzky who, after a stint at Epuni Baptist, had gone on to become an Army Chaplain. Each year at Assembly, Mike would say to me, “You should become a military chaplain.” That was the pattern for nine years until November 2005 when, in response to the standard dig from Mike, I felt suddenly that he was right. I have no doubt that this was one of those moments when God clicked the pieces into place—both the internal and the external ones.
At the heart of the internal change was the realisation that I was not especially passionate about the organisational aspects of church. I love people and in chaplaincy I saw the opportunity to deal more immediately with individuals. I was excited that dealing with the nuts and bolts of the organisation, in this case the Navy, was someone else’s responsibility.
What is your rank and what military training is required?
Rank is an interesting one for Navy chaplains in New Zealand, as opposed to Army or Air chaplains. We don’t carry rank. We have a unique rank slide, a stylised cross superimposed with a fouled anchor, that is only worn by chaplains. This sets us apart from the usual structure of the military and helps to ensure that we are equally accessible to all serving personnel regardless of their place in the system. At its simplest we effectively assume the rank of the person we are engaging with—neither being junior or senior to them.
Theologically and practically I’m deeply committed to this model of doing things. It almost seems Baptist in its ‘flatness’. The service, too, holds it as precious; every Chief of Navy in my service career has commented that it is something they would die in a ditch to retain. In a highly stratified and hierarchical organisation, it’s amazing how powerful it is to model an alternative. I think it keeps us (the current five Regular Force and three Reserve chaplains) humble. I’m sure I’ve read something somewhere about people musing about who was the greatest… as I recall Jesus wasn’t overly positive about the topic!
The military takes training, preparedness and leadership incredibly seriously. Upon attestation (entrance into the military), chaplains are commissioned in the same way as all other officers. We then undertake the same training that all Naval Officers undertake upon entry. Training continues throughout your career in the military and the leadership training is second to none. I have been lucky enough to complete courses that I would have struggled to afford or have access to if I had not been in the military.
How has your chaplaincy work challenged and fulfilled you?
The environments in which you operate can be extreme—from the cold of the Southern Ocean to the heat of the tropics. You deploy into some difficult situations—from peacekeeping in Timor-Leste to humanitarian aid and disaster relief in the wake of tropical cyclones in the Pacific and earthquakes in New Zealand. You are exposed to both the best and the worst that people can do. You get to walk with them through their greatest highs and their deepest lows. In 12-plus years of chaplaincy I have conducted almost 100 weddings, including three in one day, and have officiated at the funerals of still-born babies and 100‑year‑old war veterans. I have buried serving military personnel and repatriated the remains of those who have died while on operational service overseas.
People in the military are refreshingly honest. They speak to you openly about the most personal problems that they are facing. They come to a chaplain because they trust that we are a safe set of hands and that we genuinely care about them. We are non-judgemental, accessible and available. In an environment that is thoroughly secular we are, weirdly, afforded a degree of respect that we don’t often find in the church. We are privileged to be a part of people’s lives in a way that is immediate and uncluttered. There is no ‘end‑state’ other than responding to the opportunity to love them as we’re asked to and able to.
What aspects of your work might surprise some people?
Chaplains are subject to the same health, fitness and security requirements as all military personnel. While we are, by international law, non-combatants, we are expected to know our way around the standard weapons of the New Zealand Defence Force for the purposes of ‘making them safe’ in the event that this is necessary. Across the three services of Army, Navy and Air Force, we are involved in the training of new recruits and junior officers and have active roles in delivering different courses and in leadership training. We dish out a lot of lollies—little pieces of morale wrapped in paper that are often the catalyst of unplanned and unexpected conversations and pastoral encounters.
What is most unique, though, is the location in which all our work plays out. It is not inside the church; it takes place in the workplaces and homes (often the same thing) of the men and women of the New Zealand Defence Force. That’s the amazing privilege of military chaplaincy. In New Zealand or overseas, on exercises or operations, on base or on a course, we are invited to participate in the mission and lives of the men and women who serve New Zealand.
What would you say to those who may be considering a chaplaincy role in the military?
Confirm it as a genuine call from God. Find a New Zealand Defence Force Chaplain to talk to; we may help talk you in or out of it! Work it through with your family and loved ones; it’s a whole family calling in that you can’t do it if you don’t have everyone on board. Prepare yourself physically and mentally because it’ll stretch you and test you in ways you don’t expect. Brush up on your ironing! Get your head around the theological implications of what it means to serve in the military—it’s an arm of the state and it exists to serve in a very particular and important way. You will need to be OK with that and to reconcile it somehow to the call and the mission of the gospel.