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What Is It Like to Be an Army Chaplain?

Hanging out with one of my all-time favorite Soldiers at Pizzeria Eden in Bemowo Piskie, Poland. Chaplain (MAJ) James Saunders was my barracks next door neighbor and long-time friend. God blessed me abundantly by letting me deploy overseas twice with this all-star as my squadron and task force chaplain. First deployment was Iraq in 2009-2010 and second was Poland in 2018-2019.

A few weeks ago my friend Tim interviewed me about chaplain life in the Army. Tim is preparing to become an Army chaplain, and one of his seminary research projects was interviewing a military chaplain. Would you please pause and say a prayer for Tim? I’m praying he fulfills his goal and makes an extraordinary and great Kingdom impact on Soldiers as a chaplain.

Afterward, I thought some readers might find the Q&A helpful in understanding what chaplain life is like and some of the challenges. My hope is that my brothers and sisters in Christ praying about or preparing to become military chaplains find this conversation helpful. I’ve only been on the job for a little over a year, so I definitely have limited experience and perspective. On the other hand, I’ve been in the Army for 13 years, so I’ve worked alongside and interacted with chaplains quite often. Without further ado, here are some of the questions and answers from our conversation.

Why did you enter this particular chaplaincy discipline?  I had already been
in the Army for 12 years by the time I became a chaplain, so I understood the culture. God used that prior experience and knowledge to equip me for the mission of reaching Soldiers for Him in a different role.

How long have you served as a chaplain within this chaplaincy
discipline?
 I became a chaplain in September 2019.

What preparation did you receive to qualify you for this chaplaincy
discipline?
 I served as a lay leader (deacon), a church planter, a pastoral intern,
an associate pastor, a distinctive religious group leader, and an intelligence
officer. All these roles God used in different ways to prepare me. Of course, seminary at Liberty was also mission critical to providing the educational experience I needed to qualify.

What strengths and weaknesses do you perceive in your ministry? I believe God gifted me in teaching and preaching, so when I do these things I feel God’s pleasure the most. I am working to get better at counseling. I didn’t do a great deal of counseling as a pastor before becoming a chaplain. It’s an area I want to improve thru more study and training, because I do a lot of it as a battalion chaplain.


What are your greatest challenges serving as a chaplain within this
discipline?
  Ministering to my family and spending quality family time is always
a challenge. I am still learning and figuring out how to do this well. It helps that
my wife is amazing, a great listener, adviser, and confidant. She shoulders the
demands of ministry very well, and she understands me and the challenges. The other big challenge is serving two masters—Agape Humphreys (my terrific chapel community) and my fantastic battalion.

What threats, concerns or challenges do you perceive for evangelical
chaplains in your chaplaincy discipline?
 When I became a chaplain, I
thought the biggest threat would be people attacking me for being a devout
evangelical Christian. That threat is certainly there, but the bigger perils for Christian chaplains I see are burnout and not spending quality time with God (personal devotional time) or living in community with other believers. We must abide in the Vine or we will wither and become combat ineffective for the Kingdom. I cannot give what I don’t have. I need God’s Spirit constantly restoring me and renewing me. Only then I am effective on the battlefield and can seize ground from the enemy.

How has your ministry as a chaplain affected your personal and family
life?
God has used this role to help me become a better husband and father. I
understand how shepherding and serving God’s people must start with my
family. They are the most important part of my ministry. I think it has helped us
grow stronger in the Lord, but the role also puts a spotlight on them that is
tough to manage sometimes. Overall, they understand there is grace, but there
are also higher expectations.

What is the most effective ways a chaplain in the National Guard can
balance his duties between his civilian and military careers?
I don’t know
the answer. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Guard chaplains. I think it has to be an incredibly tough challenge to do both of these roles well. I would imagine it might work best if the chaplain is also a civilian pastor with full support from a missional congregation or a GS chaplain where you are still doing ministry throughout the week. That way they are still doing the pastoral ministry full time—just the environment and types of ministry change.

What were your biggest fears/concerns/obstacles when considering the
chaplaincy as a career?
I wanted to be an active duty chaplain, so a big
obstacle to overcome was moving from the National Guard to AD. That is very tough to do because the Guard is often under strength and very possessive of its officers. Quite naturally they don’t want to lose officers whom they’ve invested time, energy and resources. Another big obstacle was getting the Army to look at my background experience and decide I have enough ministry experience to
accession to AD. The Army wants you to have 2 years post-seminary full-time
ministry experience. Otherwise you have to get a waiver. I wanted to accession as quickly as possible, but if I didn’t accession soon I ran the risk of promoting to
Major as an intel officer before I could and that would have kept me from
becoming an AD chaplain. God worked all that stuff out though for which I’m
thankful.

What was your game plan as you transitioned from an Intel Officer to the
chaplaincy?
It was unorthodox to say the least. I graduated seminary in June
2018 and was mobilized at the same time for a deployment to Poland. My
battalion commander (BC) had recruited me over to his squadron as his S2 (staff
intelligence officer). He first contacted me several months earlier to ask if I would volunteer for the deployment, and I politely declined. I explained I felt called to the chaplain corps. However, I began praying about it and thought maybe God would use the opportunity to help me transition from the NG to AD. As Bethany and I prayed, I told God, “If he (BC) reaches out again—I’m going to take that as your leading that I ought to go.” I felt I had a duty to help the team, and if the BC thought I was the best man for the job then the Golden Rule would kick in. I reasoned I would want me to say yes if the shoe were on the other foot and I were in his position. Sure enough he reached out a month or two later, and I’m sure I surprised him by saying, “I’m in, Sir.” During that conversation, I explained my reasoning, and I asked him to support my effort to transition to the chaplaincy. He promised to help, was true to his word, and incredibly supportive.

In what ways do you find it most effective to minister in a pluralistic
environment?
 Always remember and respect people’s convictions and beliefs.
They have first amendment rights just like I do. I make the Gospel clear through actions and words. They may not be open to words, but I can still practice servant
evangelism and love them through actions. Maybe God will use these loving actions to plant a seed. Jonah 2:9 says, “Salvation is of the Lord.” If people come to Christ, it’s because of the Spirit’s work in their lives. I want to be a part of that work in some way. I am not shy about sharing my faith through word and deed. The Gospel is the hope of the world. I lead multiple Bible studies weekly, because we have 24 hour operations. These create opportunities to proclaim the Gospel and invite Soldiers to follow Jesus.

Do you encounter any struggles of insignificance, whether internal or
perceived, as a non-combatant officer?
Negative. People who have served in
the military for a while respect people for their competence, character, and
charisma regardless of their branch or combat background. I’m sure it helps
that I used to be an intelligence officer, because I can relate to MI Soldiers and understand the culture. My combat and operational deployments also help. Depending on the unit and culture, I could see the noncombatant status being a negative in some people’s minds. But when I and my colleagues took fire in Iraq, I’m sure the enemy could’ve cared less about our branches or combatant statuses.

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