Active Duty Air Force Chaplain
I’m Pastor Kristin Swenson and I serve in full time ministry as an active duty Air Force chaplain. I served as an Air Force Reserve chaplain and parish pastor during my first call to ministry before discerning the call to come on active duty and into military ministry full time.
From early on in my call to ordained ministry, I felt God leading me to serve in the military context. I grew up in a military family and I served in the Air Force prior to becoming a chaplain, and I have felt a connection to the military community ever since. The active duty Air Force community is an exciting ministry context, with both similarities and unique differences to parish ministry.
As an Air Force chaplain, I continue to lead worship services, Bible studies, and religious rites for our Protestant worshiping community on base, through which I am serving our Airmen in similar ways to being a parish pastor. However, as a chaplain, I am also assigned to provide for the spiritual needs of several units on base, which creates a unique opportunity for ministry and interaction with Airmen of various faith backgrounds as well. In our unit ministry, chaplains are often thought of as a “visible reminder of the holy” as our presence reminds our Airmen of God’s care for them and provides encouragement in their daily service. I recently returned from my first deployment, where I experienced first-hand how the chaplain’s presence was especially meaningful to Airmen to assure them of God’s care and to provide for their spiritual needs while away from home and family.
Air Force ministry is also exciting and unique by the diversity present within the military setting.
Serving alongside other chaplains from various faith traditions has strengthened my faith as I learned from others and gained a better understanding for different theologies and ministry practices. I also love working with the diverse population that makes up the military, and I have met people and learned things from others I imagine I never would have otherwise.
Another aspect of military chaplaincy which has been especially enjoyable for me is the young adult ministry focus of this context. The vast majority of our Air Force is made up of airmen under the age of 30 (or younger), and I love being able to work closely with young adults and providing ministry to them at such a critical time in their lives. I currently serve at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, TX, where Airmen come for a few months after basic training to receive technical training for their career fields before going to their first assignments. This context has a very campus ministry-like feel, and it is exciting to engage with so many young adults here on a daily basis.
I feel truly blessed to be serving as an Air Force chaplain, and I am grateful to God and to the ELCA for calling and supporting me in this ministry setting. Each day provides new and surprising ministry opportunities, and it is awesome to see God at work in the lives of our Airmen and their families, and to be able to be a part of that work.
Church & Chaplaincy
“What you might expect…”
Greetings! My name is Pastor Peter Morey, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church. I am also an Army Reserve Chaplain for a unit in Orlando, Florida, and have been in the Army for six years. Being a recent first call, I am all too aware of the challenges and processes for being a pastor and chaplain. My hope is to provide some insights and advice for navigating the call process and getting started as a pastor/chaplain and congregation. There are several critical things I think you need to know:
- First and foremost, the ministry of your pastor to the military is firmly anchored in their ordination and calling to serve God’s Holy people and is viewed by most as an extension of the congregation’s ministry. By you calling them to serve your church, you extend your ministry as well. The military offers some of the most fertile ground for ministry anywhere in our country. People in our military are young and hungry for strong spiritual leadership. Many of my own soldiers claim “none” for their religion, yet when pressed, they seem to be open to faith. Your pastor could be the door God uses to save lives and convey grace, mercy and hope. Always remember that your pastor’s primary calling is to fulfill the ministry of word and sacrament – be it within the context of a parish in a clerical collar or at their unit in uniform.
- Being a chaplain makes your pastor a better pastor. As a chaplain, your pastor will experience and see things most pastors don’t. These experiences force your pastor to study and grow in order to meet the needs of the context. For example, most pastor’s don’t deal with suicide as much as chaplains and so they don’t have the training that a chaplain does…that training may end up saving one of your people’s lives just as it saves lives in the military.
Beyond just military training and discipline, the military offers one other unique gift: perspective. By your pastor being in the military and hearing many perspectives on faith and religion, your pastor is going to be far more open and understanding of people with questions and struggles about faith – something the younger generations are experiencing a lot. This openness allows for conversation and, hopefully, conversation and integration into the church community.
- Your pastor’s ministry to the military and to the church are SEPARATE! Please, define the number of hours per month WITH your pastor that they will be spending on military duty (both time on drill and Army needs for the rest of the month – to include physical training, paperwork, etc…) so as to avoid any misunderstandings and false expectations. Also, what your pastor gets paid by the church and what they get paid by the Army ARE SEPARATE, the two must not be lumped together…. Trust me.
While these two ministries are separate, your pastor never stops being your pastor. Your pastor and your church will need to live into the context of your pastor serving you both at the church and while they are away for military duty. This can be fulfilled any number of ways but the key to this process succeeding is balance, something that you and your pastor will need to find and agree upon together. One idea is to identify local clergy willing to “cover” for your pastor when he or she is away on duty, much like a physician who has a “back-up.” This means should a death or emergency occur, there will be a trained professional nearby to cover the situation until your pastor is able to return from their military ministry context.
- Some commanders arrange for their chaplain to drill on Friday and Saturday to allow them to be present at church services on Sunday. This should not be a major concern as there is so much precedent that commanders simply know this. Commanders recognize their chaplain also serves a civilian church. I do recommend allotting for at least one or two Sundays a year for your pastor to serve in uniform on Sunday, however. When this happens, please consider it a part of the church’s ministry to provide coverage with a pulpit supply. If you have a Saturday night service, you have three options (cancel it, change the day of the service, or provide pulpit supply once a month at the expense of the congregation).
- Your pastor, as part of the military, may have an option to select Tri-care health insurance. For my family to be covered costs around 200.00/month. This is FAR less than a congregation would usually be expected to pay for a pastor’s health insurance and is a huge blessing to the church. Please, always remember that whatever inconvenience the military duties may cause the church, it is paid for in full – for me, the church saves around $12,000/yr.
Each situation between a chaplain and a congregation can be a little different. None of what I say here is prescriptive nor part of ELCA or DoD policy – these are glimpses from my experience as a pastor balancing congregational responsibilities with military duties. My ministry both as a civilian pastor and as a commissioned officer and chaplain is fulfilling. I wish you God’s blessing as you work together in serving the Lord and blessing our neighbors.
Parish Pastor (Full-time) and Military Chaplain (Part-time)
I’m Pastor Greg Brown and serve as Associate Pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fairport, New York, as well as an Army National Guard Chaplain. Settling into my first call, I navigate a range of conversations about how parish ministry and reserve component chaplaincy can fit together and affect one another.
The first thing I bring up with folks is that both of these ministries are the Ministry of Word and Sacrament to which I’ve been called by my ordination – ministries of the whole church. Certainly I am called by a congregation; I also serve as a pastor of the whole church. Being a chaplain is a part of my service to the wider church.
My National Guard chaplaincy extends the ministry of Christ and my congregation. When ministering to Soldiers and their families, I bring the presence of Jesus to others and extend the reach of the congregation I serve. Many of my Soldiers know I am a Lutheran chaplain, and they get a first-hand experience of what a Lutheran pastor is like. Being a Lutheran chaplain is a blessing. Our rich heritage of ecumenism and willingness to work with others helps me connect with them, even though I might not agree theologically or ideologically. Also, the responsibilities of living in two kingdoms are expressed in the chaplaincy by being both pastor and officer. Our Lutheran way of living in God’s grace emboldens pastors and lay people to live humbly and faithfully in daily life.
My parish call is my primary responsibility. In a training status, the National Guard requires my service one weekend per month and two to three weeks per year. Traditionally, chaplains have been allowed to train on a day in lieu of Sundays so we can be in the congregations where we serve. This has been my experience in all four years of my time as a chaplain candidate and now as I transition to being a chaplain. The unit commander is very much aware of my parish responsibilities. Developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with the commander is vital to the success of any chaplain’s ministry. Trust and teamwork will help make things easier when arranging time constraints between parish and the military. Also, trust with the congregation and the bishop is particularly important when and if I am mobilized for full-time active duty as a military chaplain.
The last important thing to me about chaplaincy and parish ministry is that I believe being a good parish pastor makes me a better chaplain and vice versa. There’s lots of talk about how to get the “nones” back into church. Being a military chaplain who works a great deal with Soldiers with no religious affiliation, I have the opportunity to gain insights on how to make my parish a more welcoming place for those who are unchurched. My skills for ministry are sharpened by work in both settings, and they equip me for the work of nurturing faith in the living, caring for the wounded, and honoring our dead.
Message for Pastors who may wish to serve in
Reserve or National Guard chaplaincy:
Discerning a call into chaplaincy can take many different forms, including serving in
- Army Reserve or Army National Guard
- US Navy Reserve or USMC Reserve
- US Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard
- Civil Air Patrol (CAP)
First – Pray and discover if you are open to serving in a pluralistic, young-adult, institutional setting. This prayerful discernment should include your personal reflection, family reflection, discussion with your synodical bishop and contacting the Assistant to the Presiding Bishop for Federal Chaplaincy Ministries at: (202) 417-3692 (see details below).
Second – Contact the agency where you may sense the “best fit” for your gifts and graces.
- Army chaplaincy – http://www.goarmy.com/chaplain.html
- Navy chaplaincy – http://www.navy.com/careers/chaplain-support.html
- USAF chaplaincy – http://www.airforce.com/chaplain/
- Civil Air Patrol (CAP) – http://members.gocivilairpatrol.com/cap_national_hq/chaplain_corps/
Each type of chaplaincy has a range of detailed age, physical, educational requirements. In every case, in order to apply to serve as a military chaplain, you will need to have an Ecclesiastical Endorsement.
Third – If you intend to apply as a chaplain it is required that you contact the Assistant to the Presiding Bishop for Federal Chaplaincy Ministries. Please speak with your synodical bishop and
Pastor Eric Wester, Assistant to the Presiding Bishop and Director Federal Chaplaincies
Bureau for Federal Chaplaincies, ELCA
305 E Street NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 417-3692 or 3693
Fourth – Continue in prayer. The process for applying for a chaplaincy position can take anywhere from 6 to 12 months. Approval to serve as a chaplain representing the ELCA requires a strong pastoral identity. For chaplains serving full-time in the military, VA or federal prison ministry, a minimum of three years of pastoral experience is required. Pastors can serve in the National Guard or Reserve chaplaincy upon ordination, endorsement and successful application to the military service.