“Hey Chap, do you have a second?” This is one of my favorite sentences in the world. One because it’s comical. Every time I hear that sentence, I know I’m busy for the next hour at least. Two, because it means that someone wants to have a meaningful conversation about life, God, and how the two interact.
I started off in the military when I was twenty years old. I was a student at the University of Iowa and needed money to stay in school. As an “Army Brat” (someone whose parents served in the military), I knew that the National Guard offered tuition assistance for college. I was probably the easiest recruit that Army recruiter had ever seen. I walked into his office and said, “I need money for school and you have it. Where do I sign?” That summer I was off to boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood. I wish I could describe to you some of those experiences. I threw live hand grenades. I ran. I shot a rocket launcher. I ran. I did obstacle courses. I ran. It was one of the hardest, best things I have ever done in my life. I served in the Iowa Army National Guard as an Administrative Specialist for two years. Then, since I was off to attend seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (in Deerfield, Illinois), I transferred to the Illinois Army National Guard. My intention was to serve my 6 years, graduate seminary, and be done. Little did I know that God had other plans.
While I was in seminary, I became concerned about the spiritual care the troops were receiving. I remember thinking, “If we went to war tomorrow, I am not at all content with the level of spiritual care I would be getting.” This started a process that culminated in my telling my wife, “I think I’m supposed to be a National Guard/Reserves Chaplain.” I researched the options available to me and found the Air Force Reserves had a great chaplain candidate program. So once again, I made a major change and moved from the Army to the Air Force. I went through the Chaplain Candidate program and was commissioned as a full chaplain a year after I took my first full time ministry position as the Youth Pastor at Grace Evangelical Free Church in Huxley, IA. The training I received from the Air Force was directly applicable to my ministry in the civilian church. I was trained in ASIST suicide intervention skills (which I used in my civilian ministry more times than I care to recall), Prepare/Enrich Marital Counseling (which I used with great satisfaction), Solution Focused Pastoral Counseling, and a host of other skills. They trained me in leadership, strategic thinking and planning, and administration. I was able to take advantage of some student loan repayment programs that allowed me to pay off all my student loans by 35 years old. And the health insurance and pay checks I received from my monthly drills allowed my wife to stay home with our kids on a novice youth pastor salary.
Currently, I am the Wing Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) at the 132nd Wing in Des Moines, Iowa. That’s a long way from my Army Private start. I am now the primary advisor to commanders for anything that touches on spiritual, religious, ethical, moral, or morale issues. I do 100% confidential pastoral counseling for troops and their families (the only place in the military with 100% confidentiality is the Chaplain Corps). I lead worship and preach the same sermons that I do at my church, albeit a bit shorter. I get to just walk around the work areas of everyone from medical and administration to pilots and intelligence analysts. I get to pull up a chair and work beside them or talk with them about their work, their families, politics, life in general… and every once in a while, someone pulls me aside and says, “Hey Chap, do you have a second.” When that happens, I know it’s game on.
I have deployed to the Middle East twice now in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Freedom Sentinel; both times with the church’s blessing. I have been part of three great EFCA churches and one thing they have had in common is that they had the vision to see my military ministry as missions. They view me as a missionary who gets to take the gospel to people no one else can get to (literally, they are behind guarded barb wire). I have baptized two troops in a dunk tank in a Muslim country, talked numerous people out of ending their own lives, worked to save marriages, supported medical missions to impoverished areas, and been a pastor to people who would never darken the door of a church but would talk to “Chappie.” To say that I, my church, and the military have all benefited from this partnership is an understatement of epic proportions.
Yes, it does require some sacrifice on my family’s part and the church’s part. My kids knew about Zoom and Skype long before the pandemic because that was how they had to relate to me. I have missed Christmas and birthdays, plays and concerts, as my family has been in this mission field with me. The church has had to work with me to miss some Sundays, and I have had to schedule youth retreats very carefully. But the church gets it. They get that this is ministry. They understand that they are enduing a little bit of inconvenience for the sake of seeing the gospel taken to people who literally are making life and death decisions and are sometimes thousands of miles away from any friends or family to support them. They also understand that they get a much better pastor for their sacrifice.
There is a shortage of chaplains right now in both the Army and Air Force. The requirements are steep (an M. Div or equivalent, 2 years experience, an ecclesiastical endorsement) but the rewards are high. If you are under 40, medically qualified, and willing to get into one of the most powerful mission fields you ever dreamed of, all while still serving in a local church, I would love to talk to you (you can message me with the form below). It may be that God wants your church to tithe something more than money: their pastor. And that by doing so, they get to take part in taking the gospel where few others can.