I trust the following question and answer about chaplain ministry and the local pastorate will provide some opportunity for prayerful reflection by those considering the call.
Dear Dr. Milton:
May I ask you a question about the chaplaincy?
The biggest question I have is can a man do this and be a local church pastor and be effective at both? I feel called to local church ministry but, I wrestle with the call to the reserve chaplaincy. I know from the six years I spent with the Navy Reserves that there are things that will be required of me as a chaplain. The higher the rank, the higher the responsibilities. What is your advice?
—Jim (a pastor who shall remain anonymous)
I am honored to receive your letter and humbled that you would write me. Thank you.
You ask one of the most relevant and repeated questions about civilian ministry, particularly the pastorate, and prospects of being a reserve chaplain in the Armed Forces. Here is my first response and I trust it helps in your decisions about seeking to be a pastor in a local church pastor and a chaplain in any of our Armed Services reserve components. It is a challenge, but it is a blessed challenge.
Such a ministry undertaking is, as I often put it, a constant “balancing act.” There is no doubt about it. You are walking a veritable tight rope of ministry, with souls and opportunities as well as pitfalls on both sides. Thankfully, you have a net. God is your refuge and strength! Yet attempting the balancing act requires a calling and a reality check about the rope as well as your ability to walk it, with God’s help.
Going to the right kind of unit helped me over these last 22 years. In fact, I have 19 years of “good service” (earning enough retirement points in a year to make a “good year” that counts towards retirement) since I was commissioned because there were several intensive years of civilian ministry which interrupted my month-to-month ministry (church planting years and the transition to a large, historic downtown congregation). But I kept up the “balancing act” on the tight rope of being a reserve chaplain and a pastor because I cherished the privilege of having an opportunity to serve God and Country in this unique ministry. I hardly ever had to miss Sundays, from Battalion chaplain to Brigade chaplain, to assistant division chaplain to deputy command chaplain to presently as a faculty member of the Chaplains’ School. We would do a Saturday chapel, so I could dash back to conduct worship services and preach at the church (except on Annual Training, which even then, I would seek to find a way to do by “fragmented” AT” and not a straight two weeks). That is rare, and you cannot count on that, but the Lord gave me (mostly) understanding commanders and excellent senior chaplains and supportive church sessions (use plenty of illustrations in your sermons of your military experiences and it helps keep the congregation a part of your chaplain ministry, for the aim is to have a seamless ministry between the two).
So it is a challenge. You have to really love the chaplaincy ministry and have the support of your session or board, AND (first) your wife. You also must be willing to go if called for mobilization. I have found that this unknown kept me on my knees before the Lord in prayer—almost a practice for the ultimate mobilization and “call up,” in you will, when Christ may come again. In this way my vocation became my sanctification.
Every chaplain will tell you that after you have done all, your career—from promotions to duty stations—is in the hands of a sovereign Lord. And as our endorser, CH (BG) Douglas Lee, USAR-R, likes to put it, there are always “sovereign surprises” out there! Yet living by faith as you minister builds faith. It should also empower your preaching in your parish ministry. The reserve chaplaincy also offers wonderful ministry-enhancing educational requirements and opportunities which my non-chaplain colleagues in the pastorate did not have. I can testify that this extra education from the chaplaincy has certainly equipped me to serve my congregations more effectively (I trust).
As for higher rank and more responsibility, I would answer that thoughtful question by saying higher rank brings different responsibilities, and not merely more of them. Every level of chaplain ministry is filled with its own share of responsibilities. Yet it is true that as one is promoted the nature of those responsibilities change from more tactical to more strategic. Much also depends, once again, on the type is assignment and the mission of the respective unit. I have had to turn down command chaplaincy vacancies that I was called to, by the US Army Reserves, when I felt that it would curtail my equally sacred duties in the civilian ministry. There, again, is that old tightrope! It is always there!
All in all it has been MORE than worth the balancing act and I would do it all again if I could. I have received more than I have given. I have met some of America‘s finest and was free and remain free (Lord help us) to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ as God gives open doors. I still get excited when I put that uniform on. I guess that is a good indicator that it has been and remains such a good fit for me and my family and my civilian ministry.
God bless you and give you wisdom as you consider this high and holy calling. It has been a way for me to “do the work of an evangelist” and I cannot imagine a life of ministry without it.
Let me know how to serve you more as you consider walking the “tight rope” of being an Armed Forces chaplain and a pastor.
Whenever I get stressed in civilian ministry, my wife, now seasoned as a reserve chaplain’s wife and Pastor’s wife, will say, “Just think about chaplain duty coming up!” It is that much of a joy to my life. I can’t imagine life and ministry without it.
Commending you to Christ and to the Word of His grace, I am
Your friend and brother—Mike