Military Lay Leadership Program

By Fr. Nicholas Kiryluk

Orthodox can be proud and reassured to know that today Orthodox chaplains are well represented in the Chaplaincy in the Armed Forces of our country. Currently there are 28 Orthodox chaplains on active duty and approximately 10 in the Reserves. There is a role in this program for the layperson as well.

To reinforce the chaplain’s ministry, and especially to provide an Orthodox presence at military installations and VA hospitals where there is no Orthodox chaplain, lay leaders can volunteer through the Lay Leadership Program that is set up by the Armed Forces’ Department of Chaplaincies.

A lay leader serving on a military installation must be in the military or in some way associated with the military, i.e. a retired military person or in the immediate family of a military person. To serve as a lay leader in a VA hospital, any Orthodox person is eligible provided he/she has the interest and dedication. Thirty-two Orthodox lay persons are presently involved in this capacity.

What a lay leader does and how one qualifies to become a lay leader are outlined in the following questions and answers taken from the OCA Chaplaincy Handbook (published in June, 1985 and available from the Chancery):


Q. What function do Orthodox lay persons have in the Department of Chaplaincies?

A. It is precisely for the laity in the Armed Forces and for our veterans in the VA Medical Centers that the Department of Chaplaincies exists. Because of the proven effectiveness of lay persons in maintaining the Orthodox military chapel community, even when no priest is assigned, the Department of Chaplaincies appoints and endorses responsible applicants to serve as Orthodox Lay Leaders.

Q. What are Orthodox Lay Leaders?

A. Orthodox Lay Leaders are sincere, conscientious, and dedicated lay persons who are blessed and endorsed by the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. They act as official representatives of the Orthodox Faith on a military installation or a VA Medical Center. They are witnesses in every sense of the word and look out for the interests of Orthodox military personnel and VA veterans. They remain in close communication with the Dean of Orthodox Military and VA Chaplains. If there is an Orthodox chaplain on the installation, then they are directly responsible to him.

Q. What are their specific duties?

A. Orthodox Lay Leaders perform a variety of tasks. They maintain liaison with the installation chaplain; are authorized to identify and contact Eastern Orthodox personnel using the resources (listing of personnel) of the military or VA operation; they arrange for and publicize Orthodox Divine Services and assist the Orthodox chaplain or local civilian parish priest. They may not counsel, preach, or perform any of the Holy Sacraments. In an emergency they can baptize when an Orthodox priest is not available.

Q. What if there is no Orthodox chaplain or civilian priest near the Lay Leader’s duty station?

A. The function of the Lay Leader is to maintain the integrity of the Orthodox community during such periods of time when no priest is assigned. They continue to gather the community and may conduct a Reader’s Service of the Hours and Typika. (The official service book for this purpose is the one authorized for Lay Leaders in the Diocese of Alaska and is available through the Dean of Chaplains.) They should also try to arrange for an occasional visit of an Orthodox priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Such requests are made with the installation chaplain.

Q. What are the qualifications one needs to become an Orthodox Lay Leader?

A. As the previous answers suggest, they must be dedicated, responsible, and versatile individuals who regularly receive the Holy Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion. They must be tactful and obedient, yet uncompromising. A Lay Leader must fulfill those qualifications which normally constitute membership in good standing in a civilian parish. The abilities of each individual are considered and past church leadership is most helpful.

Q. How does one become an Orthodox Lay Leader?

A. An interested person should contact an Orthodox Chaplain or the Dean of Orthodox Military and VA Chaplains. Once provided with the necessary paperwork, and the recommendation of an Orthodox Chaplain or civilian priest, he or she must be endorsed and certified by the Primate of the Orthodox Church in America through the Office of the Dean of Chaplains.

An example of the kind of work a lay leader does is Mrs. Thelma Petrochko who works with Orthodox military personnel at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. She took over these duties at the death of her husband, Sgt. Nicholas Petrochko. Since, at that time, there was no Orthodox priest at the post, she conducted a weekly reader’s service, organized the coffee hour and the church school, and produced a weekly parish bulletin. She also arranged to have area priests come to the base for Divine Liturgy periodically. Now that a regular Orthodox chaplain has been assigned to that base, she continues to work with him and under his supervision.

Volunteer lay leaders working at the VA hospitals, while performing some of the same functions, would be more involved with a visitation program. An important aspect of the work here is simply to be a good listener. In addition to regular visitations, lay leaders look to ways they can provide little comforts and cheer for the patients. For example, two of our lay leaders at the Newington VA Medical Center in Connecticut, Phyllis Madrak and George Lukasevich, have provided our VA patients with afghans and necessary articles of clothing. This they accomplished through contacting Orthodox people who were interested in helping our veterans.

Once approved, lay leaders are guided in getting started by the assigned Orthodox Chaplain or, where there is no Orthodox Chaplain, the Dean of Orthodox Chaplains and the Senior Installation or VA Chaplain.

Lay Leaders are very much needed in many parts of the country. Helping to provide for the spiritual needs of those who are separated from their families, for military families unable to be part of a local parish, for veterans still suffering the results of war - is truly a Christian ministry.

For more information about the Military Lay Leadership Program, write or call:

Department of Chaplaincies
c/o Dean of Chaplains
Orthodox Church in America
P. O. Box 675
Syosset, N.Y. 11791
(516) 922-0550

Fr. Nicholas Kiryluk is a retired Chaplain, Colonel, in the US Air Force and is Dean of Orthodox Military and VA Chaplains.