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Reserve’s top chaplain recounts how ‘ministry of presence&#8217

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–It was an unusual site for a worship service: no building, no musical instruments, no stained-glass windows or vaulted ceilings. Just lots of sand and lots of sky.
But for Jim Spivey, associate professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the vast desert floor and Saudi Arabian sky were a perfect setting to lead the men and women of Desert Storm in worship.
Spivey, the U.S. Army Reserve’s highest-ranking chaplain, was stationed with the 383rd Quartermaster Battalion, which helped ferry fuel to the heavy armor striking Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. Life as a military chaplain in the midst of war caused Spivey to rely heavily upon Christ, and it showed him that the gospel message can take root no matter where it is preached.
Spivey began his military career in 1972 as an artillery man in the U.S. Army. He was called to preach and five years later enrolled at Southwestern in Fort Worth, Texas, staying in the Army Reserve. He became a chaplain in 1986, served with the U.S. Air Force in England and has ministered in military police and aviation units in Texas and Oklahoma since then.
He now serves as the assistant chief of chaplains for mobilization and Reserve affairs, spending 90 days in active duty every year. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general May 7, 1998.
In 1976, Spivey made his first trip to Saudi Arabia while serving in the Army. During his Gulf War duty in 1990 and 1991, Spivey was stationed in the northeastern part of Saudi Arabia, which he described as “a vast expanse of horizon.” The landscape reminded him a little of west Texas, he said.
That part of the Muslim kingdom was sparsely settled, so Spivey did not have a lot of contact with the Saudis. His unit lived in tents well away from any populated areas and operated within the rules of engagement, one of which forbade proselytizing Muslims.
Spivey’s ministry focused on the soldiers, most of whom were with the U.S. Army. His battalion was based in El Paso and, consequently, many of the troops were Roman Catholic.
But the battalion also drew on Reserve and National Guard units from 12 different states that included soldiers who represented a broad mix of faith groups. The battalion’s mission was to maintain fuel bladders called “bag farms” for tanks of the Seventh Corps.
With these units scattered about across the desert, that made for a long Sunday for Spivey, who began the day at 5 a.m. helping pack a military truck and then headed out across the desert to conduct a worship service with a unit from Georgia. After he returned, he would drive out again at 8 a.m. to another unit. Spivey conducted six or seven services each Sunday and about five each Monday.
“Each one of the services was different,” said Spivey, noting the unique atmosphere and expectations of each unit.
Spivey said he preached according to the unit’s needs and took care not to focus his preaching on things that are doctrinally unique to Southern Baptists.
“I didn’t try to make everyone a Baptist,” he said, adding the point of his sermons was “preaching the gospel, encouraging people and giving hope.”
His duties also included counseling, working with emergency notification services, helping get Red Cross messages out and visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals.
In addition, Spivey helped set up a library for the soldiers, and he and his assistants prepared “sundry packs” for the soldiers that contained various daily items the troops might need. They also helped in relief work for Kuwait, collecting items the soldiers didn’t need and items that were sent over from the United States.
A “ministry of presence” becomes as important as preaching and evangelizing, Spivey said.
“It’s ministering where you go. Every contact is an opportunity for ministry. More ministry is done in casual contact than with the pulpit,” he said.
That does not minimize the importance of preaching, which Spivey said is “a time where you have people who expect you to minister to them.”
Spivey has found the ministry of presence has benefits that extend beyond the chaplaincy setting.
“It’s caused me as a pastor to take more seriously who I ought to be as a pastor, and what I ought to be as a professor.” At the seminary, he said, “an awful lot of what we do is day-to-day responding to students.”
“The work of a chaplain is basically to do the work of a pastor. It’s the work of a general practitioner in ministry,” Spivey said.
But added to pastoral duties, a military chaplain also has to be tactically and technically knowledgeable.
“There’s an idea that chaplains in the military are preachers, that all they do is preach,” he said. He shook his head at the misconception, saying, “If you think like that, you won’t survive.”
In Saudi Arabia, Spivey was told to help guide a fuel convoy through the desert. Combat engineers had cleared paths through southern Iraq, which was heavily mined, and after a few trips the paths could be easily seen and followed.
By the time he helped guide his convoy through to replenish fuel supplies, Spivey recalled, more than one path had been cleared, creating intersections. His simple job of keeping the convoy on track had become a bit more complicated.
“A chaplain is a soldier like other soldiers,” he said, acknowledging a chaplain is not a combatant and does not lead people into battle but still needs skills to survive.
Spiritual warfare is the chaplain’s primary battle, and because every unit is different, “learning how to communicate the gospel is always a challenge,” Spivey said.
This is especially true for Reserve chaplains, like Spivey, ministering since the end of the Cold War. Since 1989, he said, the military has been “doing more operations than before with far less people.”
With an increase in the tempo of military operations — ranging from the invasion of Panama in 1989 to the involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo — there has been more turnover in personnel. Reservists being called to active duty on a more regular basis creates more stress and difficulties, both for the soldiers and for the chaplains who minister to them.
“[The situation] is more intense,” said Spivey, “and the chaplain is the person that has to help them deal with crises, pressures and family situations.”
On the other hand, this situation has created an opportunity for the Word of God to be more openly received, he noted.
“The more people are perceived to be in crisis, the more open they are,” he said.
Another challenge to the Reserve chaplain is the nature of Reserve units. Because chaplains don’t see soldiers on a daily basis, Spivey said, “It’s more difficult to establish a relationship and establish credibility for ministry.
“You have to be very focused and intent about building bridges,” he said.
Though military chaplaincy has been challenging, Spivey believes he has been rewarded, especially with the lifelong relationships he has established, the confirmation of the call God has given him through chaplaincy and the experience of working with chaplains of other faiths.
“Bottom line,” Spivey said, sounding like a military man, “Christ has called me to serve soldiers.”
The service to soldiers gives him a common purpose in working with other chaplains.
And seeing the message of Jesus Christ able to hold its own among diverse beliefs has been a reward of its own.
“There’s a great confidence in seeing the gospel at work out there in the marketplace, and seeing that the gospel will prevail,” he said.

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  • Cory Hailey