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Prayer in Jesus’ name & altar calls cited as ‘kiss of death’ for promotion

HAVELOCK, N.C. (BP)–Although he will be able to remain in the Navy until completing a 20-year career, Lieutenant Commander David Wilder doesn’t expect to move up in rank.

The only active duty chaplain among five Southern Baptists in a class-action lawsuit filed against the Navy last year, he is stationed at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock, N.C.

He will be moving to Camp Lejune in Jacksonville, N.C., this July to run the chaplain training and operations program for the base chapel.

Wilder’s portion of the class-action suit alleges systematic discrimination against “non-liturgicals,” as evangelicals are classified, resulted in him being passed over for the rank of commander in 1999 and 2000 despite an outstanding record.

The Marine chaplain told Baptist Press his achievements include three Navy commendation medals and consistently high course grades, with only one B in chaplain school.

While control lies in the hands of those from liturgical backgrounds, he said the heart of the problem is that rewards go to those who “play along” to get promoted.

“If you want to pray in Jesus’ name, you’re not going to go very far,” said the 1980 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

“If I have an altar call at the end of a service and invite people to come forward and accept Christ, that’s the kiss of death as far as advancement in the Chaplain Corps. If we preach that people have to accept Christ, they have a problem with that.”

Public professions of faith in Christ are not part of the tradition of liturgicals, who baptize infants and call them Christians at that point, he added.

Extemporaneous prayers for healing or other requests also work against evangelicals getting promotions, since that marks them as outside the group who run the corps, he said.

“Promotions aren’t based on fitness [evaluation] reports, although they claim it is,” Wilder said. “We have people documented as obese and not able to pass physical fitness tests who are selected for commander.”

Wilder, a North Carolina native, had negative experiences with his supervisors while successfully ministering in Okinawa from 1990-93, paralleling those of SBC chaplain Greg DeMarco, whose worship service in Italy became the largest in Europe.

The lawsuit outlines how Wilder led a general Protestant service that averaged 100-125 a week. Meanwhile, a co-plaintiff named Larry Farrell led a Pentecostal service in the same chapel at a different time; it attracted 250-275.

When an Episcopal chaplain who was part of an incoming Marine expeditionary force visited in 1992, he suggested improvements to Wilder’s service that amounted to turning it into an Episcopalian service, the suit said.

After the Southern Baptist refused, he was removed as pastor of the service although remaining chaplain of Camp S.D. Butler. According to the suit, when his Marine superior changed the format, attendance dwindled to a dozen.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist chaplain said he moved across the road to the base theater, with a boom box the sole source of musical accompaniment. Still, the service thrived, averaging around 150 in the summer and 200 during other seasons.

He said he successfully fought attempts by the Marine chaplain to close the service by threatening to complain to his endorsing agency and other superiors.

“[The Episcopalian] said I was stealing his people and hurting his service,” Wilder said. “I said people could choose what they wanted to attend. Half the people in the military, or close to it, are Baptist.”

Although those passed over twice by promotion boards are routinely separated from the Navy, that practice is often ignored when it comes to liturgicals, Wilder said.

“If you’re Episcopalian, Catholic or Lutheran, it’s unheard of for those guys to be kicked out,” said the 16-year veteran.

“If you have 14 years of service, you can carry on with a year-to-year extension until 18 years. Then the law kicks in and you can go to 20. I’m in as far as being able to stay. But I’m dead as far as promotion.”

Licensed to the ministry in 1974 by his home church, New Hope Baptist of Raleigh, N.C., Wilder felt the call to ministry as a student at Campbell University. He got involved in chaplaincy there as a volunteer and during seminary counseled people in prisons and hospitals.

While he was an associate pastor at Cherry Point Baptist Church in Havelock, N.C., for more than five years — including 18 months as interim pastor — the state convention’s director of chaplaincy kept urging him to consider the military.

Despite the problems he has encountered, he has no regrets about joining the Navy.

“It’s been a great ministry,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: DESERT DEVOTIONS.

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  • Ken Walker