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Military Chaplains need our support

Posted: October 30 2019 at 12:00 AM

Rev. Darneather Murph-Heath, Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Anderson, Bishop Sally Dyck, Commanding Officer Recruit Training Command (RTC) Capt. Erik Thors, Lt. Eric Brown, Rev. James Preston and Clayton Edwards visit the Great Lakes Naval Station to attend a recent recruit graduation.

During the Gulf War (January 17 - February 24, 1991), the church I was serving was engulfed in its own conflict. One large extended family in the congregation had several members deployed. A large contingent of church members also participated in the peace protests every week in downtown Cleveland.

In this particular church, it was impossible to sit in your pew and pretend that everyone agreed with your perspective on the war. Requests for prayer were always lengthy anyway, with testimonies and personal concerns and celebrations, but they were longer and more intense than ever as various members shared their views—based on part politics and part faith—on the war. We were all exhausted a few weeks into the war as we stayed up late to watch the “shock and awe” on television. Mercifully, it only lasted 42 days. Oh, if our present military conflicts were only so short-lived!

When the deployed members came back, they told me that I should become a military chaplain. Say what? Did I mention that this extended family wasn’t exactly my biggest supporter—and now they were suggesting I become a military chaplain?

Say more! They told me that some (non-United Methodist) chaplains preached hellfire and brimstone and led Bible studies on the book of Revelation out in the desert apocalypse. They told me how scary that approach was for them and others when what they needed was assurance and strength. They would have preferred my style of teaching and preaching. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement!

Over the years as a district superintendent and bishop, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the United Methodist recruitment, screening, training, and credentialing of military chaplains. United Methodist military chaplains are highly regarded in their ministry in all the branches of the U.S. military.

Making a personal connection

I was reminded of this recently when I was a guest with Elgin District Superintendent Rev. Darneather Murph-Heath, and the Rev. James Preston and Clayton Edwards from Kingswood UMC in Buffalo Grove at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago. Two military chaplains there, Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Anderson and Lt. Eric Brown, (one of which I ordained in Minnesota), had invited us to the graduation ceremony for 975 recruits. It was quite impressive overall, but most impressive was how these two military chaplains (and others with them) provide ministry during a very grueling experience for them. The chaplains are well-trained in all kinds of preventive mental health care for people suffering from the effects of abuse, suicide ideation, and other upsetting conditions as part of the general recruit population. 

They preach to about 1,100 young adults every week. “What do you preach about?” I asked them. They told me whatever it is, it’s always about grace: how much God loves you no matter who you are or what you have done. And not only grace, but when they feel alone and afraid, they can know that God is with them. Pretty “basic” preaching to go along with their basic training.

After an amazing tour of the facilities and the graduation (at which I was the guest of honor), we went to lunch, where I learned more about the chaplains’ ministry. At the end of lunch, one of the chaplains said, “Bishop, the reason I wanted you to come here was because in all that is going on in our denomination, please don’t overlook the importance and the contribution of our church in providing quality military chaplains all over the world and in all branches of the government.”

The impact of apportionments

As groups discuss the future of the church (and have written legislation for their ideas), UMC boards and agencies are often on the chopping block. Some may question, who needs them? Or for that matter, as members of our annual conference, people have chosen to withhold apportionments to the general church due to the Traditional Plan, which prevailed at General Conference in February. 

Most United Methodists don’t know or appreciate some of the ways that the rest of the world counts on us to be in ministry. Military chaplains who care for the souls of the men and women who serve their country are among the unsung heroes of our church. And it takes resources to prepare chaplains for their work and care for them.

Through the United Methodist Endorsing Agency, funds for recruiting, training, and credentialing are provided by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry through the World Service (first priority in paying apportionments) and the Ministerial Education Funds. Today, more than 1,700 endorsed United Methodist clergy are taking their ministry beyond church doors and answering God’s call as chaplains and pastoral counselors.

While active chaplains are paid for by the military, the federal government looks to religious bodies to provide a credential known as an “endorsement” for anyone who wants to serve as a military chaplain. Clergy must be qualified and authorized to provide the full range of ministry to all kinds of military personnel and must work cooperatively in pluralistic settings to support all needs. Endorsements are not equal in their sensitivity to the needs of all people; United Methodists stand out and above others.

United Methodist clergy matter in the military

We have about 350 military chaplains and chaplain candidates in the UMC at this time. From our conference, there’s the Rev. Jason Turner, who will attend training in January 2020 with the Air Force and National Guard; the Rev. DooSoo Lee in the Army; and the Rev. Jeffrey Moore, who spent years in the Navy and Coast Guard but has transitioned to prison ministry in the last few years.

Veterans Day is coming up. I hope that all churches in our conference will consider the impact that their dollars (given or withheld as the case may be) have on lives and ministries. This is just one small, usually invisible, incredibly important ministry that no local church could provide by itself but could be jeopardized by our actions. 

Let me repeat: this is ONE ministry that we are known for even if we don’t know about it! Please support World Service in the General Apportionments. There are tons of other stories of ministry about other line items in our general apportionment budget.

Support UMC military chaplains

No, I didn’t go into the military and as most people know—including the extended family who told me I should become a military chaplain—I rarely support war or military efforts to solve our international disputes. But I fully support the ministry of our church in providing quality military chaplains and I hope you will too. As you pray for those who serve our country this Veteran’s Day, offer a prayer for our military chaplains. 

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