WARTBURG, Tenn. (BP) – When First Baptist Church Wartburg called Matt Ward as pastor three years ago, members knew what they were getting – a major in the United States Army who has been a chaplain in the Tennessee National Guard since 2011.
The church also knew they were getting a pastor who had to serve once a month for two days in the National Guard, be away for two weeks in the summer and could possibly be deployed overseas for a substantial length of time.
Though he could not have known it at the time, Ward would soon discover that the church that called him would support him unconditionally when that deployment call came.
Ward, who is beginning his 20th year of military service, came home in February from an 11-month (it was supposed to be nine months) deployment to Kuwait where his chaplain responsibilities would take him to several countries during that time.
He returned to his congregation last month with a day full of activities and celebration. It was a culmination of the church’s support throughout his time away.
“The church was so gracious,” Ward said, noting the members allowed his family (wife Tara and two sons, ages 8 and 12) to stay in the parsonage while “taking care of everything” from yard work to maintenance.
Most deployed soldiers have to arrange in advance to have their family provided for, Ward said, or the spouse has to deal with it. “My family never had to worry about the yard or if the washing machine broke (and it did). Someone took care of it.”
While that should be the norm for any chaplain or pastor in the military, that is not always the case, Ward said. He personally knows a chaplain who was fired by his church while he was deployed. The chaplain had to return home and move his family out of the parsonage. Ward said that memory has remained with him and caused him to wonder what would happen to his family should he be deployed.
Instead, Ward said he has been blessed. He has served as pastor of only two churches – First Baptist and West Cleveland Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tenn.
Though he was not deployed while at West Cleveland, the church viewed his military service as part of their ministry, he said.
The Wartburg congregation followed suit. “They took it as a challenge, knowing that they might have to send their pastor to the mission field, even if it happened to be with the military,” he said.
Vanessa Taylor, administrative assistant who served as the go-between with Ward and the congregation while he was away, agreed.
“We just sent him on a long-term mission trip, and we were going to support him while he was gone,” she said.
Not only did the church care for his family, they showered Ward with care packages not only for him, but also for the soldiers he was ministering to thousands of miles from home. One of those was Ward’s own assistant, an avowed atheist whom Ward had been praying for. (See related story.)
Prior to his employment, the church had been focusing on showing the love of Christ to people “in a practical way so they could feel it, hear it and see it,” Ward said.
“Over the past year I was on the receiving end (of those efforts),” he said. “It felt good.”
Ward was so moved by the church’s care and compassion that he nominated the church to receive the Department of Defense Pro Patria Award.
This award is given through the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), which recognizes organizations that support members of the Guard and Reserve.
First Baptist Church became the first church in Tennessee to receive the award and will represent the state on a national level in the small organizations category for the “Freedom Award.”
Ward told WATE-TV in Knoxville, “I thought, here I am, leaving for a year and a lot of employers, that’s a big deal for anybody but I thought, I’m the only fulltime employee of the church and they’re OK with me leaving for a year. That’s a big deal.”
Jim Mungenast, vice chair operations for ESGR, told the Knoxville station, “What our committee tries to do is recognize those employers so when someone does get deployed, they’re not worried about their job, whether it’s going to be there when they get back.”
Ward also nominated seven people from the church to receive ESGR’s “Patriotic Employer Award” for “supporting employee participation” in the National Guard and Reserve.
Honored from First Baptist were the church’s five deacons (Doyle Haynes, chairman, Alfred Branim, Jimmy Lloyd, Jamie Pemberton and George Wright), Taylor and Doug White, who served as interim pastor while Ward was deployed.
White had served as interim before Ward was called as pastor. Ward noted that when he shared with White about his deployment, White told him, “You can count on it. I will make sure I am available.”
During the March 6 celebration service, Mungenast and Leslie Purser, Knoxville area ESGR chair, presented the church the Pro Patria Award and the seven individual awards.
“It has been very humbling, and it’s been very challenging and most of all, very rewarding to help him through this deployment,” said Taylor, who, besides providing communication between pastor and membership also helped ship items to Kuwait.
Deacon Pemberton said the church is “honored” to receive the award, adding: “We are thankful for all our military men and women whose service provides us the freedoms we have here in America. They are true heroes.”
The community of Wartburg also took part in welcoming Ward home. After arriving in town with his wife in the driver’s seat, they were pulled over by a patrol car.
Ward, however, suspected something was up when his wife was not fazed. Instead of a speeding ticket, he received a police escort through town with people lined up on the streets (including his son’s middle school basketball team) with signs welcoming him home. A few weeks later, signs can still be seen in some businesses in Wartburg.
“It was special to me and my family,” Ward said. He added that his welcome home provided a way for the church and community to let their light shine. “A lot of people not affiliated with the church or the community have reached out to me as a result of the story being shared,” he said. “It warmed a few hearts and opened a few eyes to see how special it can be to be part of a good church family and community.”