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Military chaplaincy: great challenges, great fulfillment

Military chaplaincy: great challenges, great fulfillment

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Military chaplaincy: great challenges, great fulfillment

March 30, 2008   News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0823}

NOTE: See related story “Military seeks ‘a few good’ pastors” [March 28, {0821}; An e-Review Feature by Jenna De Marco] at and a related commentary by the Rev. Terri Jones, a military chaplain, at

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

e-Review asked several military chaplains with ties to the Florida Conference about their experiences and whether a shortage in chaplains was affecting them.

A new United Methodist task force of active-duty and retired chaplains is developing ways to help the church support and welcome service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The United Methodist Endorsing Agency of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society invited the chaplains to a meeting in Nashville, Tenn., last year to discuss the initiative. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo #08-0797.

While facing many challenges — long absences from family members, dangerous working environments, daily uncertainties — they say the benefits and joys of being that “beacon of hope … in the midst of trying and difficult circumstances” outweigh the hardships.

Chaplain (Major) Scott Weichl, USANATO
Heidelberg, Germany
Full-time, active duty chaplain serving at a military chapel
Chaplain for 16 years

I am an elder from the Florida Annual Conference (old Sarasota District) and endorsed through the General Board of Higher Education as an Army chaplain. 

The challenges are many, yet the blessings are more abundant. This is what makes this such an exciting ministry and place to be.

The enjoyable part is easy — being around great folk who serve their country unselfishly, often making great sacrifices. Every day is different. Every assignment is unique. Every duty station is a new experience. Our children have benefited from living in diverse cultures and geographical areas, helping them to be more well-rounded and accepting of people.

The challenges are extended deployments and frequent absences from home due to training. All other challenges are similar to civilian pastorates.

There may be a shortage of chaplains, but quality chaplains are what is needed, not just chaplains. Experience has proven that many commanders really appreciate and respect United Methodist chaplains, as they know the dedication and quality exhibited by them throughout the military. Our church should take pride in this effect it has upon the larger world (“the world is my parish”) and encourage those who have a special gift for this type ministry. After adequate screening at annual conference and general board levels I certainly would encourage our United Methodist clergy to consider this special call to God and country.

I believe the rigorous lifestyle and deployment tempo tend to discourage some from entering the military; however, those whom God calls, God will also equip for ministry. The question is, will those who call themselves faithful actually believe God will do it?

Chaplain (Lieutenant Commander) Steven L. Souders, U.S. Navy
Bremerton, W.A.
Director, Spiritual Fitness Center, Navy Region Northwest
Chaplain for 12 years

What I enjoy most about being a military chaplain is serving and sharing in the lives of those who serve and sacrifice every day on behalf of this great nation.

Military chaplains have the privilege of helping to shape and support the spiritual needs of those in uniform. Put simply, we are pastors of a congregation who also happen to be military and mobile. We move with those entrusted to our care much in the same way as priests in the Old Testament moved with the Israelites when they left Egypt for the Promised Land, providing valuable spiritual presence, counsel and ministry.

Significant challenges also come with ministering to a military and mobile congregation. There must be an understanding of the military culture and how to be a productive prophetic voice. As John the Baptist understood, there are times when the phrase “one crying in the wilderness” is more than a phrase — it is a location far from home, friends and family. In that remote overseas or desert location, far from the routine of ordinary life, stands a beacon of hope — the military chaplain — with an open heart and arms outstretched, providing reassurance that God is present even in the midst of trying and difficult circumstances. Military ministry is about making a difference in the most of all challenging circumstances.

The phrase “there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend” becomes a literal daily possibility for the military chaplain as he/she travels with the military unit. No one wants casualties, but they are a fact of life in a time of war. Who is there to comfort those who mourn on the battlefield; to comfort families when they receive the news of a son or daughter’s supreme sacrifice? It is the military chaplain. Military ministry is one of greatest challenges, but also one of great fulfillment.

I do sense there is a shortage of military chaplains. I would encourage pastors to prayerfully meditate about the possibility of whether God might be calling them to military ministry as a chaplain. It is understood and evident that this calling to military ministry is not for every pastor. If a pastor chooses not to enter military ministry, this should not negatively reflect on his/her patriotism or moral courage. What's important is serving where God calls us to serve.

Why the shortage of chaplains? The challenges of military ministry are significant. It takes a special calling from God to be a military chaplain and volunteer to sign on to provide pastoral care in the military setting. In addition, the military requires its chaplains to be physically fit and meet certain age requirements. With so many second career pastors today, many cannot or do not meet the age/physical requirements necessary for this specialized type of ministry.

Peggy Wilkins, U.S. Air Force
Viera, Fla.
Retired after 16-plus years active duty and 11 years as a reservist
On sabbatical

I loved the diversity (of military chaplaincy) — so many cultural and faith backgrounds. I also enjoyed being present. Very few opportunities exist for a minister to visit their constituents where they work — chaplaincy provides that opportunity. Also, the counseling: people who came to see me were, for the most part, not coming for religious instruction, but simply to get my “take” on what had happened in their lives.

The challenge was working with other chaplains of different denominations who hesitated accepting a variety in their staff. They were few, and there were so many other positive things. It simply kept life interesting.

There are fewer chaplains, and that means chaplains are tied to their offices e-mailing or phoning their program people or counselees, creating a less “visible reminder of the holy.”

I would encourage ministers to consider this career, but only if they have a strong sense of God’s calling to that venue. For the military chaplain, a shortage is partly because of the hardship on families when the chaplain is deployed, the idea of working in a war zone, the difficulty of living so far from extended family, especially as parents age. It is hard on the family (extended, too), on their local church and on their personal faith.

The benefits and joys so outweigh the hardships, but only if the person knows in his or her heart that chaplaincy is where God has called them.

Chaplain (Major) Jim Lewis, U.S. Army
Kent, Ohio

While I am a member of the Florida Conference, I left Florida several years ago for an extension ministry in Ohio and am living in Kent, Ohio.

The Rev. Jim Lewis participates in a gathering last year of military chaplains working to help The United Methodist Church support and welcome service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. A UMNS photo by Hilly Hicks. Photo #08-0798.

I became an Army chaplain in 2002, and am currently in the Ohio National Guard, where I was recently promoted to Major.

I am not currently serving a church … but am completing a second master’s degree as a full-time student and am preparing for my second deployment to Iraq, starting the end of April.

Military chaplaincy is, in effect, a “young adult” ministry, in that even most of the more senior officers and enlisted personnel would count as “young adults” in most churches. It is also a ministry in which our primary parishioners live most of their lives outside the doors of the church, so it is an inherently outreach and evangelistic ministry, as well as interdenominational and international in scope. At this point in time, we are also serving as peacemakers in the crucible of history, which can be a pretty exciting place to be in ministry.

I was in Iraq in 2005 and am going for my second deployment in two months. The Army’s idea is to be able to “guarantee” at least five years between deployments, but that is not possible. Ohio, Florida and most Guard settings are doing well to have half the chaplains for the available slots, and many states are far below half. We are short enough that the Army is now providing some very valuable incentives to attract well-qualified chaplains. I would encourage anyone who might qualify to come be a part of what I call the most exciting ministry in the world.

A variety of factors contribute to the shortage of chaplains, particularly in “mainline” denominations such as our own. Primarily (it) is our weakness when it comes to reaching out to young adults, in that a person wanting to be a chaplain in the military must meet certain criteria, not the least of which is the educational and ordination requirements, in addition to endorsement requirements by a certain age. Add to that general physical requirements (weight limits, good health), and I discovered at two different annual conferences with 700-plus clergy only a handful would qualify if they had the desire.

Our denomination is also moving toward a stance more akin to traditional “peace churches” than to our more inclusive heritage, forgetting that Jesus promises to be with us “even to the ends of the earth” and “in the valley of the shadow of death,” such as in the foxhole or on the battleground; not just where it’s safe and where the “enemy” respects one’s right to disagree, but where the bullets are flying and where the soldier struggling with her or his faith is the only peacemaker keeping terrorists at bay.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.