The Call of Duty

As the Chief of Navy Chaplains, Rear Admiral Bob Burt counts it a privilege to oversee the spiritual lives of a thousand-plus Navy, Marine and Coast Guard personnel and their families. Chaplain Burt grew up in Springfield, Ore., and felt God calling him into Navy Chaplain ministry while serving aboard the Aircraft Carrier USS KITTY HAWK in 1974. But it was Burt’s experience with Young Life as a teenager that served as his “basic training” and model for ministry. Chaplain Burt recently spoke to Relationships from his Navy Annex office near the Pentagon about his history with Young Life and how the ministry prepared him for active duty in service to the men and women who place themselves in harm’s way every day.

Give us your job description as Chief of Navy Chaplains.

I keep an eye on about 860 active duty and 250 reserve component chaplains and have an awesome staff to help me. In general, a military chaplain’s job is to provide religious ministry; advise commanders on religious, moral and ethical issues; facilitate worship for different faith groups; and care for every single member of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. We all do general counseling and many of our chaplains are also trained in marriage preparation and enrichment. We provide classes in stress management, suicide awareness and other self-improvement training. We also do a lot of work with families.

Talk about your history with Young Life.

I grew up with parents who didn’t go to church, but there was a church across the street from our house. So when I was 6 years old, they sent me. I got a good foundation. But the things I learned in church were not reinforced at home. So my commitment was not as solid as it could’ve been, and I walked the fence.

In 1964, I was a sophomore in high school. One day in the locker room after football practice, a junior I really admired and respected asked me if I’d ever gone to Young Life. I’d never heard of it. So that night I went to my first Young Life [club], and I was hooked. It was awesome. What I really appreciated was the fun they had. I was very excited that the Christian faith was presented in an environment of enthusiasm, energy and excitement and we still had a few minutes to pause and give the spirit of God the chance to speak to our hearts. I never missed a meeting.

How did Young Life impact your spiritual life?

At Frontier Ranch, I came face to face with God. I decided it was time to get serious about my faith and I dedicated my life to Christ in a way I’d never done before. I credit Young Life with the turnaround in my life [that made me get] serious in my walk with God. My Young Life leader, Jack Loy, was the single most influential person in my life as far as drawing me closer to the Lord. He was an incredible role model for all of us.

What made Jack Loy so special?

One day, Jack asked me if I was serious about walking with God. I said yes and he said, “Then we need to meet.” So every Thursday night, we’d meet for half an hour. That was the turning point in my faith journey. For the first time in my life I was held accountable. We met for one and a half years. Jack was the epitome of what a Young Life leader should be. Through Jack’s discipleship of me, I saw the importance of holding Christians accountable and how important discipleship is in the Christian faith. Through the years, I’ve tried to get together with young sailors and Marines and see how they’re doing, and now I try to do the same thing with the chaplains. When I was a senior chaplain and had young chaplains under me, I would meet with them and ask them about their spiritual goals and plan for growth.

So the Young Life paradigm of relational ministry fits in the military?

Most definitely. I encourage chaplains to get involved in the life of their command — do physical training with Marines, hike the hills with them, gain their respect. Chaplains have many opportunities to sit down and have what I call extraordinary access. When a sailor is out on the deck of a ship at 9 or 10 at night thinking about life, a chaplain can walk up and engage him in conversation and give guidance. What an incredible opportunity we have. That’s the whole reason we do it — we care about them and want them to know God loves them.

You were an average teenager who’s made a big difference in the world, and you connect some of your success to the ministry of Young Life. How would you encourage current Young Life leaders?

When I look back on my life and see the hand of God at work, building the foundation at a small neighborhood church, preparing me for the Chief of Chaplains job at some point in the future, I see that it took someone like Jack Loy to come in, look in my eyes and say, “If you are serious about growing then here’s our agenda.” That was a turning point. Even though it’s very draining and a lot of responsibility, discipleship is what makes a difference in kids’ lives. It determines whether or not they get serious about Christ. There is such opportunity for Young Life leaders to reach kids and plant seeds of hope. Look into the eyes of every single young person and try to see them as God sees them. Let them know God loves them and has a plan for their life.