By Chris Miller ’70
I started to see possibilities for myself in the ministry during confirmation in seventh and eighth grade, but I didn’t get any encouragement. There just weren’t any women in the ministry anywhere.
In my junior year at Cal Lutheran, I wrote to the editors of the three different American Lutheran magazines to ask, “When do you think we will have women pastors?”
Two of them said probably not in my lifetime, and one of them made it clear he preferred things that way.
The most optimistic of the three guys said it would be 10 to 20 years.
Surprisingly, in my senior year, the decision was made to open up the ministry to women.
Although I was actually the fourth female chaplain to come on active duty in the Navy, in 1975, my three tours as a chaplain included a series of firsts.
I was the first Lutheran among the women chaplains in the Navy, and also the first female Protestant chaplain from a liturgical tradition in the U.S. armed forces. The Navy provides chaplains to the Marines, and on my first tour at Camp Pendleton, I was the first woman chaplain to serve with the Marine Corps. Then in 1980, I unexpectedly became the first woman chaplain to go to sea.
In the Navy and the Chaplain Corps, and at seminary, I assumed that I had a right to be there, and I didn’t make a big deal about it. There were some Marines and some sailors who made it clear they were not accepting of a woman chaplain. At Camp Pendleton, I would encourage them to go find another chaplain. There were several assigned to the base and the naval hospital, along with more than 20 chaplains with the First Marine Division.
On the other hand, when you’re deployed at sea and you’re the only chaplain aboard ship, you’re it.
I grew up in the Navy culture. My dad was an officer my whole life. About a decade after World War II, our family spent two years in Naples, Italy, but mostly we lived West Coast–East Coast–West Coast–East Coast and got good at making cross-country trips. We watched the interstate highway system get built.
So when the Lutheran church started feeling some pressure in the 1970s to have at least one woman chaplain somewhere in one of the armed services, I was a likely candidate as both a seminary student and a Navy brat.
Going to sea came on my third tour. In 1980, women were not assigned to combatant ships. No destroyers, no aircraft carriers, no submarines, nothing that went to sea to fight. Instead, they put us aboard ships that supported the combat ships.
On top of that, they basically assigned women to ships that never went to sea.
And so I was assigned for duty to the USS L.Y. Spear, which was one of two submarine tenders home-ported in Norfolk, Virginia. If not for the Iran hostage crisis and the focus on the Persian Gulf region, I probably would have spent the whole two and a half years in Norfolk.
Instead, about six weeks in, we had an officers’ call and the captain announced that we were going to Diego Garcia. Everybody kind of looked at each other: where’s Diego Garcia? We set sail on about a month’s notice for a six-month deployment to the Indian Ocean.
We had to be prepared to repair anything the Navy had at sea, which was not only submarines, but all the other combatants that were out toward the Persian Gulf area. We loaded 100 tons a day for 30 days to get ready to go.
After the intensive preparation, the deployment was fantastic. The ship achieved all sorts of goals and came back with lots of kudos from other commanders. Unfortunately, some politics got in the way in the last months of that tour involving a Lutheran chaplain who didn’t want me in his corps.
Being a pioneer has its ups and its downs. I didn’t make it for 20 years as a Navy chaplain, but women now are hanging in there. The new Navy chief of chaplains is a woman.
Although I had to leave the chaplain corps, I did round out 20 years in the Navy. I became an intelligence officer and also an operations officer pier-side in Norfolk, where I had about 300 people working for me thanks to the tugboats. That was another job some people didn’t want women to do. I went on a second deployment to Diego Garcia and later worked in the plans section in Stuttgart, Germany, until 1989, while we were still planning for World War III.
During the Gulf War, I commanded one of the five intelligence teams that is stationed in the Pentagon 24/7. We saw generals and admirals on a regular basis and, when on the night shift, were involved in the production of the President’s Daily Briefings.
After leaving the Navy in 1995, I enjoyed a civilian career as a police chaplain and a lead pastor.
Through it all, I assumed I had as much right to do things as anyone else.
Besides Cal Lutheran, the Rev. Chris Miller is a graduate of Hueneme High School and Luther Seminary in Minnesota. She sang in the first co-ed seminary choir at Luther and was the only female in her cohort at chaplain school basic training in Rhode Island. She lives in Camarillo.