Frequently I am asked to share my experience of the call to the Chaplain ministry. In my case, I have served as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain (Colonel), not an active duty Chaplain. The call to give one’s life to the work of the Lord in this specialized mission field called the military is, I believe, the same, whether active or reserve. So I offer a recent letter I wrote to a young man. I do not reveal his identity, but my words to him are, with a prayer that this will be of help to another. May Christ Jesus raise a new generation of godly, cross-clinging, Christ-centered, Bible-loving, and soul-winning Chaplain-shepherds to serve God and Country.
My Dearest Friend in the Gospel Ministry of Jesus:
What a blessing to hear from you! I remember well how the Lord led you to go to seminary—through earnest struggle about an inward and outward calling of the Lord—and now you are in the ministry of a great congregation. Oh, how good the Lord is to us. We, back at your seminary, are rightfully proud of you in the Lord, as I am sure your wife and parents are, as well. I also remember speaking at your graduation from seminary! I recall with great joy the sight of you crossing that chancel platform to receive your degree from me! Even though those were great times, along with your years of ministry preparation and study here at the seminary, which will remain and also grow as cherished memories, the best is yet to come!
Well, now, you have written to me about another possible “call within a call” brewing in your heart: “Am I being called to the military chaplaincy?” It is always good to inquire into the ways of God but especially necessary to examine His ways in one’s own heart! How well I recall my own thinking through that very question. I would say, first of all, that you are, my dear friend, thinking towards a good thing. Your letter both honors and humbles me. I consider the call to the Chaplaincy to be one of the greatest acts of Christ-like service in all of the ministry. You have asked me to give some of my thoughts on discerning the call to the chaplaincy ministry and so I shall.
My beloved friend, I have observed common vocational themes in those call to Armed Forces Chaplaincy. So, I will seek to address these two great divinely placed motivators or sources of inspiration in one called to Armed Forces Chaplaincy.
The first motivator has to do with an understanding of self.
I. The one who is called to military chaplaincy has a sense of the “heroic.”
This can be an internal calling that comes from the love of country born out of one’s uniquely patriotic values learned in one’s own family. Perhaps the dinner table was a place where one’s mother or father or both placed the love of country deep in the child’s heart. This sense of the heroic—this deeply ingrained gallantry or chivalry—may emerge in the soul from being gripped by the presence of a photograph of a venerable father or grandfather in uniform from World War Two. As a child, you would pass this black and white image each day as you bounded down the stairs for school and it always caused you to pause and look at it. Such models can be most powerful and even used of the Lord to arrest the attention of one He is calling to serve. This sense of patriotic courage and love of the military could, also, be the happy result of one’s positive experience in the Boy Scouts of America or Junior ROTC or ROTC at a university. Such a commitment in the soul could come from readings in the Pilgrims or the Founders, or even reading a modern patriot like William F. Buckley, Jr. or reading the speeches of a great American statesman-hero like President Ronald Reagan or Theodore Roosevelt. However this chivalrous instinct is cultivated by the Lord, it at length emerges and then it comes upon a man, like Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. This sense of the heroic won’t let you go. It grabs him in his heart; it grabs him and presses him to confess, “I love this nation with my life. I love her so much that I would give my years, my life, my all to this ‘City on a Hill’ shine for a generation yet born.” In the case of a man called to preach this certain sense of the heroic is then injected into that call and shapes the call that becomes a holy burden on the soul to declare, “I must preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to my nation and for my nation. I must declare the faith of our fathers, the guiding light of our Pilgrim founders, and the Good News that has shaped generations of Americans—not just to a congregation of those who will come through the doors of the church—but to soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen, or guardsmen who cannot pass through the doors of the Church. I want to be where they are. I want to bring Christ to them. I want to pass through the doors of their experiences—the gates of their military posts, the hatches of their ship’s compartments—and speak Jesus Christ into their lives and the lives of their families.”
That, dear friend, is the growing conviction of one who is called to be a chaplain: one who takes the Gospel to those who cannot come to a civilian ministry. You take the Church to them. In that regard, you are a missionary, but because of your love of this country, your love of the military institution, and your love of service to men and women and their families, you choose to be a missionary to the military.
I chose to answer that call through the United States Army Reserve. I have loved my ministry so much with the military. I love soldiers (and feel a deep kinship to all military personnel), as individuals and as a group. For one serving both parish and platoon, there is a cost. You have to walk a metaphorical high-wire stretched taunt over two worlds below: the civilian ministry and the military. Only through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, providing wisdom, discernment, and favor, can one successfully navigate the entire length of the tightrope. It gets tricky. But I would walk that tightrope all over again. For more than 30 years there were commitments at church and responsibilities at the unit to work out. There were the annual training days at the same time of, e.g., vacation Bible school. There were Sundays at church with baptisms conflicting with Sundays at the unit with a suicide prevention class to teach. So many more near-miss collisions of equally essential events are now part of my service record. The military is a very physical parish for ministry. The physical training (“PT”) was a constant challenge for me. I had an athletic background and an enlisted tour that left me with injuries. Consequently, the pain piled on as the years piled up. I had a medical profile (a “waiver” granted by the Army that allows one to be exempt from certain physical training events). This profile prevented me from going with the team into “the box” (the area of operation).
On the other hand, I go to ministry to those left behind. And there was such good ministry there. I bless God for my humble role in the Army Reserve, whether in the Continental United States or in Europe (where I was privileged to serve on several occasions), to support the Army and Army families (and other services as well) so that better and more able soldiers could serve in the harder places. They are heroes to me and my gift of service cannot compare to theirs.
For me, I am confident that the sense of the heroic came from my maritime-officer father, who died when I was just a little boy, leaving me an orphan. Though I did not get to know him, I grew up looking at a photograph of this young pre World War II Merchant Marine officer who was commissioned in the US Coast Guard when the war with Germany commenced. His sisters, my aunts who reared me, told me the stories of his experiences with German U Boats around Greenland, off of the coast of Africa, and his adventurous and yet compassionate wires back home to them, and how he served with not only distinction but with joy. To command troop carriers through the North Atlantic, through a thicket of enemies who sunk many of our Merchant Marine ships, was heroic indeed. I am proud of my father. He made many of these voyages from America to Great Britain during the War. He lost a ship off of the coast of Africa, sunk by a U-boat, and was removed to Cape Town, returned to New York. My father, then, returned to the battle. Jesse Ellis Milton was released as a Coast Guard officer in 1945. He returned to his role as First Mate (i.e., an Executive Officer” on the deck) with the US Merchant Marine. He made the sea services a career. Through looking at his photograph each day of my life, growing up, and listening to those stories, I always knew that I wanted to serve this nation in uniform in some way if God would allow me. That is my own story of how God planted a love of this nation and a love of the military who defends her, deep into my heart. I suspect that you have your own story. Most Chaplains do.
Son, if you are called to Chaplaincy in the Armed Forces, there will undoubtedly be this burning reality in your life:
II. The one who is called to military chaplaincy has been given a burden for souls to be saved and lives to be transformed by the Gospel in the military.
Many people have the sense of the heroic. They join the military and serve with distinction and honor. The question before us is not just that we might possess a sense of the heroic, though I believe that must be present, but how that fits with a calling as a minister of Christ Jesus. I would say, without hesitation, that the one who is serving as a Chaplain, successfully, and with great vocational satisfaction, is the one who wants to minister Christ in the military environment. In a similar way that Amy Carmichael had a love for India, or David Livingstone had a passion for Africa, the man called to the chaplaincy should have a desire for the Armed Forces of our nation. The missionary to Kenya loves Kenya, and the missionary to the military loves soldiers or Marines or Airmen or Guardsmen. It is that simple. It is that profound. Thus, just like any other missionary, there is a compelling charge from God Himself that burns like an eternal fire inside of the Chaplain’s bones—Jeremiah-like—to lead lost souls in that mission field to Jesus Christ and to shepherd His flock there. The sense of the heroic and the burden for souls in the military is a powerful combination, and together it equals an undeniable call to the military chaplaincy. This blessed burden to share Christ with members of the Armed Services can be expressed appropriately through several outlets in the military: preaching from the pulpit of an Air Force base chapel at Frankfort, Germany; holding a Communion Service on the dangerous flight-deck-turned-sanctuary of the USS Ronald Reagan underway in the South China Sea; a small group prayer service with a Marine unit headed out on midnight patrol in Kandahar; in a rescue helicopter with the Coast Guard off of the Alaska shareline; or with an Army battalion on a joint national exercise in the United Kingdom. Each of these, and so many more, are opportunities to speak forth the Word of the Lord. Sometimes a door of ministry opens when the chaplain is exercising what we call “a ministry of presence:” just being there where the troops are. In the military, Chaplains go not only go to Soldiers and Families. Soldiers (and Sailors, Marines, and Guardsmen) and their Families come to the Chaplain. Such ministry is refreshing and vocationally satisfying. There are innumerable reasons why civilian parishioners might hesitate to bring their needs to a pastor. The reality of the civiliam community and their role within it can hinder ministry. Fearing embarrassement of being “outed” as the sinner that we all are, a person may conceal the sin, the pain, or the problem. Not so in the world of the military. The military community is much different than the civilian society at this point. The military as an institution advocates for the serviceman or woman—enlisted or officer— to come to their Chaplain. “Take it to the Chaplain, son!” says the crusty old Navy chief to the young seaman. And they do! I was once the “Chaplain of the Day” or “duty Chaplain” while on annual training, at an active duty Army installation. When I relieved the previous Chaplain, I learned that I had inherited a full day’s worth (and more) of soldiers and family members who wanted to see me about their needs. And then there are the emergencies on top of those! I shared Jesus Christ to every one of those divine appointments, and God allowed me to lead many of those who came that day to the Lord. That was an unforgettable annual training! I will always remember how I called home to Mae to say, “Honey, you know how we prayed that I would get to share the Gospel while on duty? Well, I have never been ‘tired’ of sharing the Gospel, but I must say, I feel tired right now!” Indeed, my first day on that particular duty ended with reuniting a military couple in counseling by having them recommit to their marriage vows, right there in the chaplain’s office. They stood next to each other, in their workday Army uniforms, and looked into each other’s eyes. I pronounced them “Man and wife—STILL!” and even said, “You may kiss the bride!” He did. Even more incredible, though, is that they invited me to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them. Thus, as the Holy Spirit moved in them to repent and believe, I prayed with them to follow the Lord. I could not sleep that night! To do what God has called you to do is an awesome thing. Whether one serves, as in my case, stepping into the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church to unburden my soul of the message God had given me for that week, or preaching to a congregation to encourage them in the Word of the Lord as the president and chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, I have had a simeoulaneous open door to preach Christ with a Soldier or a family member in need, as a Chaplain.
Dear friend, I will let you in on a little secret: I became a Chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve to reach a seventeen-year-old sailor boy who was lost and had joined the Navy to “find his way.” The Navy gave him his start in education and did indeed help to provide him with direction. And I am here as a Chaplain for an aging Naval officer, who had sailed the seven seas from the time he left home as a boy in 1920, and who could navigate his way across the earth by the stars, but who had lost his way with God in his heart. You see, I am that young man who joined the Navy. And that alcoholic Naval officer? He was my father. Christ claimed both, thank God. Since I was saved and called to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, I have always wanted to give my life to finding them, for they are still out there, lost and in need, and leading them to the Savior.
So to answer your question about a calling to the military chaplaincy, I have observed that the more spiritually effective Chaplains, without fail, exhibited that outward expression of a sense of the heroic, and a burden for souls. I can honestly say that the greatest professional men and women I have ever known have been those who wore, and who wear today, the uniforms of our nation’s military. I can also say that some of the finest and most dedicated ministers of the Gospel that I have ever known were and are Chaplains in the Armed Services. I am humbled and moved each time I get to put on that uniform. It has been and is today my honor to serve with heroes as a minister of the Gospel.
The first president of Covenant College and Seminary, Robert Rayburn, was a Chaplain in the Army in World War II. The founding president of Reformed Theological Seminary, The Reverend Sam Patterson, was a Navy chaplain in the Second World War. Chaplain (Colonel) David Peterson distinguished himself and brought recognition to our church (and honor to Christ) through his service as the Command Chaplain of all Coalition Forces in Desert Storm. Chaplain Douglas Lee, who followed Reverend Peterson as Coordinator of the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains, was chosen as a Brigadier General and served in the highest levels of our nation’s military at the Pentagon. Since then, there have been many to follow them as Chaplains in our Presbyterian and Reformed faith. We need many more. I would guess that if you read my words about the sense of the heroic, and the burden to reach the lost and shepherd the flock of Jesus who are serving in the military, and your heart begins beating faster you will soon say, “I am that man!” Then, you will quickly be pinning on the cross. If not, remember that God gave you an insight into the calling of a military Chaplain; and therefore please pray for them. Seek God on for Chaplains—military and, in fact, all Chaplains—to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ by bringing the Gospel to people and communities where they are.
Editorial note: The author has followed the suggested editorial standards of the Chief of Chaplains for capitalizing any use of the word Chaplain, Armed Forces, Soldier, Family, and has applied that to Sailor, Airmen, and Guardsmen. This standard, at the time of the author’s service as Senior Editor of the Chaplain Corps Journal, was followed for the sake of honor.