LIHUE, Hawaii (BP)–Kathy Walton hadn’t seen her husband John since he deployed in April to Balad, Iraq. A chaplain with the 3rd Sustainment Brigade from Fort Stewart, Ga., Walton and his command unit have been wrapping things up in Iraq. In his absence, Kathy has been holding down the fort and raising their four children. They were reunited for a few days in September on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i.
The Waltons were among 70 chaplains and chaplain wives who attended the Southern Baptist Pacific Chaplains Retreat in Lihue, Hawaii, for training, encouragement and spiritual rejuvenation. The retreat was sponsored by the North American Mission Board and the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention while individual chaplains paid their travel expenses to Kaua’i.
Chap. (CPT) Walton was serving as pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Bozeman, Mont., and as a chaplain in the National Guard when he was called into active duty. Knowing he’d be deployed for at least 12 months, Kathy and the kids stayed in Bozeman so they’d be close to friends and their church family.
Walton and his fellow military chaplains cited long separations from family as the number one issue American troops deal with on a daily basis.
“We’ve got guys who’ve been deployed four or five times,” Walton said. “And most are on at least their second tour.”
The U.S. military depends on its chaplains to provide care and counseling for troops, particularly in places where the spirits get weary — whether it’s from combat with the enemy, 15-hour work days or being away from family.
But who provides care for the chaplains?
NAMB’s annual chaplains retreat is “a time of spiritual renewal and refreshment,” said Keith Travis, team leader of the chaplaincy evangelism team at the mission board. A former chaplain in the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserves, Travis understands the spiritual strain a chaplain’s ministry can take on the individual.
In all, 3,479 NAMB-commissioned and endorsed chaplains are ministering not only in the military but also in institutions, corporations, health care and public safety.
“Our chaplains need the connection between NAMB and themselves so they can get up-to-date information about the denomination and NAMB,” Travis said. “Also, personal connection between them and other SBC chaplains is critical to their career. And most important, the retreat provides chaplains, in many cases, with much-needed pastoral care.”
The military, by nature, is about readiness, about having the capacity to respond to any contingency anywhere. An important facet of any chaplain’s spiritual readiness is to take time for spiritual renewal.
“Even Jesus took time to get away from the crowds and spend time one-on-one with the Father,” said Tommy Smith, a pastoral counselor and retired Army chaplain who led the breakout sessions. “You all are shepherds and you have to take care of your souls.”
The Sept. 19-22 retreat was built around the theme of “Spiritual Formation — Spiritual Journey of Healing and Hope.” Keynote speakers Tom Elliff, former pastor and former International Mission Board vice president, and Michael Catt, pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., spoke on spiritual revival and awakening.
Elliff posed the question “For what are you thirsty?” at the retreat’s outset, speaking from Psalm 42:1.
“We can get so busy trying to help everyone else thirst for God that we lose our own thirst for Him,” Elliff said. “The very fact that a person thirsts for God is a sign of spiritual life. How thirsty are you? I pray that you and I would be a people who are thirsting for God.”
Catt built on Elliff’s foundation by talking about reconnecting to the Source, looking for burning bushes and listening for God’s voice.
“God knows the ministry yoke He’s called you to serve in,” Catt said. “Serve God where you are, but in His yoke.”
Using Moses’ burning bush experience as an illustration, Catt told chaplains to expect the unexpected.
“We could miss some burning bushes trying to put batteries in our flashlights,” Catt said.
“I don’t think we understand that God loves the element of surprise,” he said. “God does things suddenly and immediately, but He doesn’t always work the same way. Sometimes He comes in like a tidal wave and sometimes like the tide, but He still comes in.”
In encountering God, Catt said, “expect an assignment, because He never leaves us without work to do.”
“He’s got a purpose and a plan for you. He knows the role that you play, the ministry you’ve been called to. So get off your face, stand at attention and report for duty.”
Christian recording artist Babbie Mason led in worship and facilitated a breakout session for chaplain wives.
This was chaplain wife Sherry Major’s third year to attend the chaplains retreat, but this year was different. She was flying solo. Her husband, Chap. (CPT) Jimmy Major is deployed to northern Afghanistan with a Signal Unit from Schofield Barracks.
“When I heard the topic was going to be on spiritual renewal, I knew I wanted to be here,” Major said. “And Jimmy really wanted me to come. This is our family.”
Doug and Deborah Brown of Dalhart, Texas, attended the retreat for the first time together. Brown has been chaplain at the Dalhart Unit prison for 15 years.
“We’ve not been able to do something like this together in a long time,” Brown said. “We are truly blessed to be here. It’s good to be with other chaplains and hear what others are going through and know that we’re not alone.”
In addition to providing ministry to the inmates, Brown is chaplain for the prison staff.
“People on the outside don’t always understand what a chaplain’s job is,” Brown said. “I’m on call 24 hours a day, just like any pastor.” Brown often officiates at weddings and funerals for staff and their families.
A highlight of the retreat was the swearing in of U.S. Army chaplain candidate 2nd Lt. Todd Daniel. It’s tradition that the senior ranking active duty chaplain administer the oath. This year that honor went to Chap. (Lt. Col.) James Hartz who was attending with his wife Dee from Fort Lewis, Wash.
The Daniels recently moved to Virginia to serve on staff at Colonial Heights (Va.) Baptist Church. He and his wife Amanda volunteered their time at the retreat to lead Vacation Bible School for the chaplains’ children who attended with their parents. Daniel’s journey into chaplaincy began a year ago, leading VBS at the same retreat.
“We saw these men of God and their families as they sacrificed their lives to reach the soldiers who fight for our country’s freedoms,” Daniel said.
“During that trip, God allowed Amanda and I to experience their passion for the military and the need to reach those men and women for Christ.”
Daniel will serve in the Army Reserves until he finishes the chaplain candidacy program and is endorsed by NAMB.
During the retreat’s breakout sessions, Tommy Smith spoke on the importance of practicing spiritual disciplines — spending time in prayer, participating in the life of a local church and digging into God’s Word.
“Everyone here has a calling. The spirit and the gifts are ours. We have a mighty foe, but one Word will bring him down — the Word of God,” Smith said.
Smith also spent time equipping chaplains with practical counseling tools for their ministries.
“We’ve been on the mountaintop this week, but you’ve got to go back to the prisons, hospital rooms, the workplace and for some of you the battlefield. You’ve got to deal with life-and-death issues,” Smith said. “But go back with a refreshed calling and a renewed work.”
Carol Pipes writes for the North American Mission Board.