Military Ministry Symposium: A Jumping Off Point for Mission

I recently attended a promotion ceremony for a chaplain—a student of mine from my days as Director of the Naval Chaplains School—onboard one of the ships homeported in San Diego. Afterward at lunch, I mentioned my current role as military missioner for the diocese and the public commitment the diocese has made to reach out to servicemembers, families, veterans, and retired military. As one might expect, there was a great deal of interest in the shape and form of the outreach was taking. We discussed the EDSD Military Ministry Symposium the diocese held in July and the interest it sparked. I pointed out that it was a jumping-off point to start the journey that we intend to build on as we share the love of Christ within the military community.

In San Diego County, there are approximately 110,700 active-duty military personnel and 118,300 family members, which represents 7.6% of San Diego County’s total population. An estimated 60.7% (71,759) of military families in San Diego County have children. In Yuma County, Arizona, the US Marine Corps Air Station, and the US Army Yuma Proving Ground are two of Yuma County’s principal industries. At MCAS Yuma, there are 6592 military personnel. In Imperial County, Naval Air Facility El Centro serves as an aircrew training facility and the winter home of the Blue Angels.

Even if you agree that churches should reach out to armed services members and their families, you might think your church isn’t up to the job. But don’t discount what your congregation can do in military ministry. Over the past thirty years, the trend in military chaplaincy has been to utilize the services of chaplains in more operational settings as opposed to the chapel model. This is due in part to the decreasing number of chaplains entering the military and the general decline of military personnel attending chapel services. Recently, for example, in the Bremerton, Washington area, the local commander announced the closing of a chapel in their Area of Responsibility (AOR). The general reasoning is that the ministry of chaplains can be better utilized in operational settings.

This trend has significant implications for civilian churches in areas such as San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia, due to a large concentration of military men and women, their families, and veterans. Discussions of the armed forces chaplaincy in church circles tend, at times, to become confused with the pacifist/non-pacifist debate over whether there should be an armed force. That is, of course, a legitimate debate in which the church has debated for twenty centuries and will undoubtedly continue to engage. From our immediate perspective, however, it is not the point. Realistically, we recognize that the United States does have large armed forces and is likely to continue to have them. We also recognize that the churches will continue to provide ministries to military men and women.

While civilian ministries could not replace the military chaplaincy without serious loss of effectiveness, there is unlimited opportunity for civilian ministries to supplement and cooperate with the ministries of chaplains. This is particularly true stateside, where numerous civilian churches are in the vicinity of military bases. 

Two immediate goals came out of the Symposium. First, the creation of an EDSD Military Resource Manual to aid the local parish in developing a ministry to the military or complementing one that is already in place. It is important to note that this is not a “one size fits all” scenario. Many factors determine the content and scope of military outreach. And second, to foster a consciousness of outreach to the military community from the church.  

Among the needs identified at the symposium:

      •         Care and Support (practical help)

o   Before deployments

o   During deployments

o   After deployments

o   After separation from service

      •         Pastoral Care

o   Grief and loss counseling

o   Healing for combat trauma

o   Marriage counseling

o   Overcoming addictions

      •         Education

o   Marriage Enrichment

o   Parenting

o   Finances

o   Navigating available services

No one, at least of all chaplains, would deny that many military people can and should turn to civilian churches for spiritual nurture. Most chaplains have no desire to “compete” with local churches. Neither the denominations that sent them into the armed services, nor military people themselves want such competition. Chaplains recognize that the local parish, which confronts military men and women from a stance of relative permanence, can offer a kind of normal and stable church experience that chaplains themselves, because they are part of the institutional environment and its mobility, cannot provide.

If you want to learn more about Military Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, email me at tcash@edsd.org.