When I joined the US Army as a seventeen-year-old, I had no idea how God would use it decades later. After transitioning from active duty to the National Guard, my wife and I came to trust in Christ through a small town local church. As time continued, I discovered that my service in uniform could be combined with my service to Christ. I am now a pastor in a small-sized church and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. The supplemental income and affordable insurance the military provides my family make it more affordable to serve a smaller congregation. But far more significant than that, I get to serve our nation by directly caring for people who would never dream of setting foot in a church.
To that end, the agency that endorses SBC chaplains, the North American Mission Board, rightly affirms that a chaplain’s role is like that of a missionary. Chaplains interact with people of different Christian denominations and faiths as well as people of no faith. The challenges associated with that have clarified my theological thinking and given me a deeper appreciation for my Baptist distinctives. Baptists and Baptist theology are well-suited to chaplaincy.
Soldiering appeals to people who are often a little rougher around the edges than the average church member. During their service, chaplains will counsel people who have made a total mess of their lives. But you can be the person that keeps them from going over the edge, from throwing in the towel in on their marriage, from squeezing the trigger. What greater remedy than the word of the gospel of Jesus Christ fitly spoken? If you can sincerely love soldiers, you can make a profound difference in their lives and the lives of those who love them.
I know a chaplain who was contacted by one of his soldiers asking him to come to speak to his friend and fellow soldier he was concerned about. The night before, his wife had discovered he had been cheating on her. She broke a lamp and put a shard against her wrist. Though he talked her down, he was certain he had destroyed everything he held dear. The chaplain spoke with him that next day about what he had done. The conversation came around to the gospel. The soldier trusted in Christ that day. A few months later he asked this chaplain to come to speak with him and his wife. She was still very hurt and unwilling to forgive. Despite her pain and bitterness, there was something she couldn’t make sense of. Since his conversation with this chaplain months earlier, her husband had undeniably become a different man. That is the power of the gospel to change not just Soldiers’ lives, but the trajectory of entire families. What a privilege to carry around this treasure in jars of clay!
I have found that this rougher edge of chaplaincy ministry helps me stay relevant in church pastoral ministry and my preaching. While I have one foot in the church, my other is planted squarely in an arena where people’s lives frequently have little gospel influence, and the effects of sin and suffering are multiplied. Your average church member probably doesn’t experience the fallenness of this world to the same degree. But their children and grandchildren often do. The chaplain confronts this hurting head-on.
There is no requirement to have served in the military previously, though there are civilian education requirements: a 120-hour bachelor’s degree and a qualifying graduate degree of 72 hours in the field of theological or related studies. If you have completed a bachelor’s degree and are currently enrolled full-time in an accredited seminary, you can be commissioned in the chaplain candidate program. Chaplains are directly commissioned; they don’t attend basic training, go through Reserve Officer Training Corps, Officer Candidate School, or a Service Academy (e.g, West Point). Building off what you learned in seminary, the various stages of military education teach you how to be a Soldier and a chaplain.
The Army requires certain fitness standards. They are attainable for the average person and keep me doing what I should be doing anyway: being a good steward of the one body God gave me.
The Indiana National Guard recognizes that Sunday is the “big” day for their chaplains who are also pastors. Instead of the typical once-a-month training weekend of Saturday and Sunday, we do an alternate day in place of Sunday. There is training that will take you away from home and church for a couple of weeks annually, normally during the summer. But the benefits (including potential military retirement) are well worth the cost.
Does the missionary call resound in your heart? Do you long for a direct avenue to demonstrate the love of Christ to those far outside the church? As pastors, we are already part of something bigger than ourselves. Do you want to do that on the mission field as well? If so, National Guard chaplaincy might be the hardest job you’ll ever love. If it interests you, I would be honored to speak with you about it.
For the glory of Christ!
Chaplain (LTC) Scott Wells
State Chaplain, Indiana National Guard