By Bill Gasser
People in the military need your pastor. They need his prayers, and they need him as their chaplain. Today it’s hard to find a major command or installation that’s fully staffed, meaning that some battalions, squadrons, ships, and chapels do not have chaplains. Each branch of the service (both reserve and active duty) is actively recruiting, looking for pastors who are willing to serve the men and women who serve us. And pastors don’t need to raise support; the government pays them to share the gospel!
For 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as both a pastor and a Navy Reserve chaplain. My military experience has shaped my professional development, multiplied my ministry opportunities, and enriched me personally in countless ways. In this article, I’ll explain why pastors need to consider military ministry. I’ll speak primarily in terms of the National Guard and reserves, which don’t require pastors to leave civilian ministry, but I’ll also address active duty options. Let’s begin with the benefits, then we’ll discuss the challenges, and finally I’ll answer a few questions about becoming a chaplain in today’s military.
Why Consider the Chaplaincy?
The military is a unique mission field that’s open to the gospel. Opportunities seem unlimited. As a young chaplain assigned to a Marine infantry battalion, I discovered that spending time with the unit (going on hikes, to weapons ranges, on training exercises) gave me incredible access. Casual interactions routinely turned into deep conversations, sharing the gospel, and giving God’s counsel. In today’s military, chaplains still enjoy the respect of the military institution and have significant access to people of all ranks. Spiritual receptivity increases even more in combat zones. Some of the most meaningful worship, prayer, and evangelistic encounters I’ve experienced happened in Afghanistan. God does powerful work in difficult places. Without question, I’ve preached the gospel to more unsaved people as a chaplain than as a pastor—not only overseas, but also at military services, ceremonies, unit events, and funerals here at home. Chaplaincy provides a unique and dynamic platform.
Training and experience
Chaplains receive specialized training in subjects including leadership, hospital ministry, suicide prevention, and trauma counseling. They gain vital experience working with soldiers and their families through a broad spectrum of issues, needs, and circumstances. Deployments taught me how to do operational and combat stress counseling, and I’ve found those skills invaluable in working with soldiers, veterans, first responders, and their families in my church.
My military experience has given me common ground with veterans of all generations. Combat-zone deployments create a bond, not only to those we serve with, but also with those who served before us in other times and places. It’s a brotherhood that’s hard to explain, but it’s very real. Our shared experience opens doors and has enabled me to connect with people who were otherwise disinterested.
The military provided my first experience in managing a staff. As staff officers, chaplains are entrusted with management duties, and they interact frequently with unit leaders. The military is a culture that values leadership, and I’ve been exposed to a broad range of styles and personalities (mostly good ones!). As I put on rank, I began leading and mentoring other chaplains and chaplain assistants. Those leadership opportunities built my knowledge and confidence, improving my effectiveness in guiding pastoral staffs and church boards. Military service provided graduate-level preparation in working with teams.
The newest chaplain with no prior military service nets $233 per day of duty in the reserves or National Guard. Add rank and time in service, and the income quickly multiplies. The minimum number of duty days per year is 24, plus two weeks of annual training. Additional voluntary days are often available for those desiring more. National Guard and reserve chaplains also qualify for Tricare health insurance. Family plans currently cost $217.51 per month for excellent coverage—an invaluable benefit to pastors serving churches unable to provide a group health plan. Most of my pastoral ministries have been in small congregations where the supplemental income (in addition to the medical and dental coverage) was crucial for my family.
Many pastors serving independent congregations struggle to set aside adequate provisions for retirement. Complete 20 years of service as a chaplain, and that chaplain qualifies for a military pension. Active duty retirees receive half pay starting the day after retirement—a benefit allowing former chaplains the financial freedom to serve in small churches or ministries that can’t provide a full salary. National Guard and reserve chaplains with 20 years of service also qualify for retirement. Their pension begins at age 60 (or possibly sooner, depending on time served in overseas deployment) and is calculated by a formula based on rank, years served, and the number of days of duty completed. Reserve pensions are notably smaller than active duty pensions, but they still provide a significant supplement to a chaplain’s retirement plan, not to mention the medical coverage and post/base exchange and commissary privileges all military retirees receive.
This won’t come as a shock to seasoned pastors, but I view my combat zone deployments as sabbaticals. (I’m not sure what that says about the challenges of the pastorate!) Deployment life is difficult—12-hour days, primitive living conditions, diverse challenges—yet somehow simple. The ministry is fresh and fruitful, all needs are provided, and there is only one boss! After each deployment, I returned home with a new appreciation for my family and ministry and was eager to return to church work. Several pastors have confided in me, saying, “I wish I could do what you did. I really need a break from my pastoral ministry but can’t take time off without resigning.”
With two physical fitness tests per year, the military requires members to get into shape and stay that way. Looking back, I doubt whether I would have made fitness a consistent priority over the years without that accountability. I’m convinced I’m in much better physical condition today than I would have been otherwise.
I’ve lived and worked in the desert and in deep winter conditions (from 130 degrees to -30 degrees!). I’ve been in jungles and spent time at sea. I’ve flown on all types of aircraft and have ridden in all types of vehicles. I’ve been places that most Americans only see on TV. I’ve gone on patrols in Afghanistan; I’ve preached Christmas services in the Middle Eastern desert; I’ve baptized disciples in places where the gospel is largely unknown. I’ve sat with the dying, far from home. I’ve watched wounded soldiers receive Purple Heart medals and listened as they called home to tell their loved ones they’re going to be okay. I’ve seen God work miracles and answer prayers. These unforgettable experiences have enriched me, and I would not trade them.
What Are the Challenges?
There are fewer negatives than positives in chaplaincy, but the negatives are significant. Let me be candid: the chaplaincy is not for everyone.
Balancing time demands
Joining the National Guard or reserves as a chaplain will take the slack out of a pastor’s schedule. Within the first year or two he must complete the basic chaplaincy course, which lasts a couple of months (in some cases this is available in two separate increments: a month each, over two successive years). Those in the reserves are also required to “drill” two days per month on average, plus two weeks of active duty each year. Chaplains can expect some calls and correspondence between drills, depending on their assignments. Most reserve units drill on weekends, including Sundays, but I’ve rarely missed my church’s services more than two or three Sundays a year for duty. Most units allowed me to drill on Fridays and Saturdays or just on Sunday afternoons if the unit was close to my church. Chaplains in the reserves are also occasionally asked to serve at special events, such as pray at ceremonies, teach classes, provide crisis counseling, make death notifications, and officiate funerals.
An admiral once told a group of deployed reserves, “If your civilian employer, the Navy, and your family are all mad at you, you’re probably balancing your responsibilities well!” At times, I have felt that way. Chaplains who also serve as pastors must be self-disciplined as well as supported by those around them. Before committing to serve, a pastor should make sure his family and congregation are on board. Better to count the cost before he starts this journey.
People used to view the National Guard and reserves as a strategic asset—a pool of somewhat ready personnel waiting to be called up for duty when the next “world war” begins. But with today’s tight budgets, people view the National Guard and reserves as an operational asset, counted on to support ongoing operations around the world on a regular basis. Today if a chaplain joins the National Guard or reserves, he should expect to be mobilized and deployed at some point. National Guard units belong to the governor (except when called up for war) and may be summoned to help with local disasters. The Navy Reserve follows a 5:1 formula: for every month a chaplain is deployed, he is considered unavailable to deploy for another five months. In other words, if a chaplain were mobilized for nine months, he wouldn’t be mobilized again for at least 45 months after he returns home. Frequency and length of deployment vary from branch to branch, but six to nine months is a typical time away.
Deployments provide both the best and the worst military experiences. Best, in terms of unparalleled ministry opportunities, unique experiences, and personal growth. Deployments showed me that I can do much more than I thought I could, and they taught me to value life and live it fully to the glory of God. I’m not sure I would have gained those perspectives anywhere else. But deployments also provide some of the worst times. The separation is hard on families. The most painful part for me was being away from my children. If you have a good marriage, you will get back in sync with your spouse after your homecoming. But you will never regain that slice of life you lost with your children: the birthdays, the special events, the changes in their lives. You’ve missed them. The last time I was in Afghanistan, I could e-mail, call, or even video chat with people at home most days. I’m deeply grateful for the spectacular improvements in communication, but it’s still not like being at home.
Deployments can be hard on churches too, especially for the solo or senior pastor. Generally, someone in the reserves is given several months’ notice before mobilizing so that arrangements can be made at home and at church. The military pays the pastor’s salary while he’s away, so the church does have funds available to cover an interim pastor or pulpit supply. The time away is a mixed blessing for both the pastor and the church. Yes, it is disruptive and congregations don’t like change. But the time apart can be enriching for both parties, helping pastor and church appreciate each other more.
Answers to Common Questions
Which is better, active duty or reserves/National Guard?
The answer depends on what the chaplain and his family want to do. Active duty has advantages in that the chaplain has job security and more predictability. Someone who’s not currently serving a church should consider doing one tour on active duty (typically three years), which will give him a wealth of experience and perspective to decide whether active duty or reserve is better for him and his family. If he does switch to reserve, he’ll be well prepared for effective ministry there. I was willing to serve in either capacity but concluded that my primary call was to be a pastor. Being a missionary to the military in time of war was secondary, and I’m grateful for both opportunities.
The Army, Navy, and Air Force each have their own Chaplain Corps (Navy chaplains also serve alongside the Marines and Coast Guard). Think of each branch as its own tribe, with distinct customs and cultures. Ministry is ministry, but the context and philosophy differ from one military community to another. That’s true when comparing not only branches but also communities within each branch. For example, the Navy has aviation, surface, submarine, and Seabee forces (just to name a few), and each element has its own unique culture. Someone new to the military should ask lots of questions and spend time with service members (not just the recruiters!) to figure out the best fit. Effective chaplains learn to read and adapt to the culture they serve. The Biblical message never changes, but the context certainly does.
What are the requirements for joining?
Chaplains need to have completed an approved master’s degree, be ordained, have pastoral experience, be endorsed by a recognized denomination or association (like the GARBC), and pass a military physical. The entry-age requirement fluctuates based on needs, but current Army guidelines require chaplains to be commissioned no later than their 42nd birthday for active duty service, or 45th birthday for National Guard and reserves. Age requirements may be waived for someone with prior military service.
Will I be forced to violate my convictions?
Being an institutional chaplain has its challenges. At chaplain school I found myself paired with roommates who held very different beliefs and practices than I did. About that time, I was reading the book of Daniel in my personal devotions and noted how Daniel was numbered among “the magicians, the astrologers, [and] the sorcerers.” Honestly, that description fit some of my classmates! I concluded that if Daniel could remain godly in an ungodly culture, by God’s grace, I could do the same. That’s easier said than done, and not every pastor will be comfortable with the challenges. Looking back at 30 years of service, I’ve faced some dilemmas. But thanks be to God, I’ve never had to compromise my convictions. Chaplains are not only permitted but required to preach and practice in accordance with the faith of their endorsing churches. As our culture shifts away from God, chaplaincy won’t get easier. It will involve challenges but will also present dynamic opportunities for witness.
What’s the next step to become a chaplain?
Please contact Manning Brown, the GARBC chaplain endorser, at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s a valued resource and looks forward to answering potential chaplains’ questions, assisting them in the process, and helping them receive endorsement to serve as chaplains.
Chaplaincy presents meaningful opportunities and significant challenges. It’s not for everyone, but my prayer is that at least one reader will answer the call. The harvest is vast; the laborers are few. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen need pastors’ ministry!
Bill Gasser is a former Marine and Navy Reserve chaplain with 43 years of military service, currently serving as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Manhattan, Kan.
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