LIHUE, Hawaii (BP) — For the military chaplains just returning from the Middle East — who recently attended the North American Mission Board’s annual Southern Baptist Pacific Chaplains Conference — the horrors of Afghanistan and Iraq seemed far away on the eastern shore of Kauai, Hawaii’s northernmost island.
After all, that was the plan, according to Keith Travis, himself a former U.S. Army chaplain and colonel, now team leader for NAMB’s chaplaincy group in Alpharetta, Ga., who hosted the annual meeting attended by some 90 chaplains, their spouses and children. The retreat was also sponsored by the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention.
Chaplains and their family members — who paid their own way to Kauai — came from as far away as Washington, D.C., Georgia and Louisiana, from as close as Honolulu, and overseas from South Korea and Okinawa, Japan.
‘Our main concern for the chaplains at this conference — especially the military guys — is their mental, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being,’ Travis said. ‘We tried to target those four areas by bringing in top-notch speakers.’
Addressing the chaplains during the four-day conference were Johnny Hunt, former Southern Baptist Convention president and senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., and Richard Blackaby of Greenville, S.C., the president of Blackaby Ministries International and noted Christian author and speaker.
Ninety-nine percent of Americans, Travis said, don’t know what American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines experience in times of war. They also don’t understand what Southern Baptist and other chaplains do to minister to them on the battlefield.
‘People forget we’re a nation at war and have now been at war for 10 years,’ Travis said. ‘Some of these guys have been deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq three or four times. They’ve seen and heard things they never should have had to see and hear. That’s what drives us to hold this conference — to step aside with these guys and their families and say, ‘We are here as Southern Baptists to stand beside you and help you come back to who you were before.”
NAMB is the SBC entity charged with endorsing Southern Baptist chaplains for service in the military, hospitals, prisons, law enforcement and corporations. The SBC lists a total of 3,600 endorsed chaplains — 1,450 of them serving in the military. Southern Baptist chaplains represent the majority of the overall 2,700 chaplains — of all faiths and denominations — serving in the U.S. Army, Army Reserves and National Guard.
Each chaplain at the September conference — regardless of rank, age or time served — has a unique personal story to tell. So do their devoted wives. And the chaplains have much in common: an amazing faith; the sacrifice of them and their families; and a life on the move.
One chaplain just returning in May from Afghanistan was Lt. Loren Crone — a naval chaplain at Camp Pendleton in California — who ministers to 800 Marines. He’s scheduled to redeploy to the Marine’s 1st Combat Engineers Battalion in Afghanistan in April.
‘In the seven months I was deployed to Afghanistan, my unit lost four men and 30 were critically wounded. Fourteen had some form of amputation,’ said Crone, a native of Indianapolis, Ind. ‘Every day, IEDs go off and guys are blown up. Every day, vehicles are blown up.
‘The stress on the families of these injured men is incredible,’ Crone says. ‘I visit them in the hospitals and see their moms and their families. It’s tough. Some of them become amputees at age 19 or 20 and will be for the rest of their lives. Our ministry in Afghanistan is just sowing the seeds. They will need 40 years of ministry back home in the U.S.
‘I recently talked to a young war widow who just lost her husband in battle. She has two small children and one on the way. She’s going to be dealing with the loss of her husband and raising her three children alone for the next 30 years.’
Saying that injured service members are often forgotten when they return to the U.S., Crone said one ministry Southern Baptist churches should step up to is creating an ongoing ministry for ‘wounded warriors’ and their families.
American troops are just a microcosm of the American people, Crone said.
‘Some are churched and some are un-churched,’ he said. ‘You share the Gospel with some guys who, even though they are from the United States, have never heard of the Gospel. You wonder how that can be.’
Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) Ray Woolridge has just retired as assistant deputy chief of chaplains for Army Reserve Affairs, serving the last three years under Maj. Gen. Douglas Carver, the Army’s recently retired chief of chaplains and the first Southern Baptist to hold the top post in 50 years.
Working at the Pentagon for the past three years, Woolridge was senior advisor for Army Reserve chaplaincy issues — responsible for 700 Army Reserve chaplains and 900 chaplain’s assistants deployed throughout the world.
‘It’s vital that chaplains have conferences like this,’ said the one-star general. ‘It’s better to get away with people in your own denomination and in your faith background. I’m thankful for the opportunity to get recharged and refreshed in such a beautiful place.
‘Even though we’ve been in Afghanistan for 10 years, troops are still responding to the Gospel shared by our chaplains. Obviously, the Army and the Marines are tired. They’ve been doing the heavy lifting. I personally know people who have been deployed more than three times. Whenever there’s danger, there’s more receptivity to the Gospel and for folks to place their hope in eternal things,’ Woolridge said. ‘The role of chaplains is just as important as it ever was.’
Woolridge — who served in Kuwait and Afghanistan — believes the role of chaplains is misunderstood, even by some in SBC churches and seminaries.
‘Some think you’ve left the ministry to be a military chaplain but nothing could be further from the truth. Chaplains are pastors who serve in a uniform. They shepherd a unit — embedded within a secular organization,’ said Wooldridge, who with his wife, Deborah, lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Enhancing this year’s chaplains’ conference was special time set aside for pastoral counseling by Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jim Hartz, who joined NAMB three months ago after retiring as a chaplain in the Army at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a joint Army and Air Force command in Washington State.
‘Some chaplains come home OK but others may struggle,’ said Hartz, who himself served in Iraq, Korea, Somalia and Haiti.
Over the conference’s three days, Hartz and Dee, his wife of 26 years, spent at least 20 minutes each in 27 separate sessions with each attending to chaplain and spouse to help identify needs, come up with future training opportunities and provide pastoral care.
‘I wanted to meet with each couple, get to know them, glean something from them and follow up,’ Hartz said. ‘From my experience as an Army chaplain, Southern Baptist chaplains are the envy of chaplains in the evangelical world because of how we take care of our chaplains.’
‘Chaplains tend to be isolated,’ Hartz said. ‘My role is to help identify what they need, come alongside young chaplains and develop relationships so that over the long haul, they know they can safely come to me and talk. I’m in their corner, ready to provide resources to them and love on them.’
In speaking several times to the chaplains, Hunt and Blackaby counseled the chaplains on encouragement, leadership, avoiding burnout and maintaining joy in their ministries. Also performing repeatedly at the conference was worship leader Scott White and the praise team from First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.
‘Obviously, there’s so much happening with the military these days,’ Blackaby said. ‘Chaplains give so much and it’s under such a stressful condition. They have to eventually refill their tanks and recharge their batteries.’
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.