How can congregations faithfully serve those in the armed forces? This includes not only those deployed but their families and the religious professionals who care for them. Every congregation can make a difference. Here are some possibilities.
1. Educate congregants about deployments.
Explain the support typically available to family members from military sources, such as family days, readiness group meetings and Returning Warrior Weekends. Military spouses often miss important events due to problems with transportation and child care. Anticipate these needs ahead of time. Also, be sensitive to titles (and capitalization):
- Soldiers serve in the U.S. Army;
- Sailors in the U.S. Navy;
- Marines in the U.S. Marine Corps;
- Airmen in the U.S. Air Force; and
- Guardians in the U.S. Coast Guard.
2. Pray and provide other support for military families.
Develop a list of active service members related to the congregation. Make a prayer list including them and their family members. Keep it current. Consider publicizing the list in the weekly bulletin and/or newsletter and on the website. Provide scholarships for service members' children to attend camps, summer learning opportunities, youth activities and other events. Offer child-care support for families.
3. Celebrate departures and returns.
The United Methodist Endorsing Agency is the part of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry that approves United Methodist clergy for service as chaplains in military, hospital and other settings. Two liturgies are available on the endorsing agency website: "An Order for Blessing Service Members Deploying to War and An Order for Welcoming Service Members Returning from War." These rituals need not be elaborate or lengthy. However, they should be planned and coordinated and have enough flexibility to accommodate sudden schedule changes. Whenever possible, see members off and/or greet them at airports as they begin or end a deployment.
4. Reach out to service members' families.
When visiting service members' families during deployments, FIRST ask how family members are doing in the member's absence. THEN ask about the deployed child, spouse or parent. Follow through to meet the needs that families are willing to share. Many churches have sent phone cards, clothes, toiletries, toys, DVDs and several hundred pounds of jellybeans in response to service member requests.
5. Be sensitive to the emotional issues of military separations.
The emotions that spouses and family members of deployed service personnel experience are similar to those in the grief process at the death of a loved one. Denial, frustration, anger and depression are the initial feelings. Within a few months, most spouses realize they will survive despite the challenges they face. For those individuals who continue to struggle, the church needs to offer encouragement and find ways of showing continuing concern and love. In some instances, professional help may be necessary.
6. Begin regular support group meetings.
If the congregation has several deployed members, it may be helpful to provide time and a place for spouses to share their frustrations and successes with each other. Use professionally developed materials, where available. Be sure to support these meetings with top-quality childcare that includes opportunities for children to share their feelings through age-appropriate activities.
7. Keep services personnel on the congregational mailing lists.
Never remove a service member from the church rolls while he or she is on active duty, except at the member's personal request. Read and write on members' Facebook pages. Send email and letters through the U.S. Postal Service. Include subscriptions to devotional materials. Remember that mail - especially packages - can take a long time to reach remote locations, so plan accordingly. Be aware of prohibited items.
8. Designate a paid or volunteer staff position for ministry to deployed service members.
The staff member will have a list of resources and information that includes:
- the military persons' names, unit designations and military addresses;
- deploying units' point of contact, who can provide access support and benefits offered to military families;
- the names of the nearest military community resource agencies; and
- the nearest active duty chaplain's office.
9. Identify and employ local mentors and resource people. Collaborate with other congregations.
Don't overlook local veterans' organizations and trained congregational caregivers, such as Stephen ministers. Make sure that volunteers are trustworthy and that their knowledge is current and relevant. Also make sure you emphasize to volunteers the need for confidentiality. Consider special offerings for organizations that provide care and support for chaplains and their families. This includes retreats for those who have been in combat, continuing education and immediate pastoral assistance in times of crisis.
10. Consider adopting a chaplain/chaplain's assistant.
The military calls this pairing a ministry team. Collaborating with a ministry team might include:
- Committing to pray for the ministry and for team members' families;
- Contacting military representatives to see how the church might assist in meeting particular needs of the units they serve;
- Sending birthday cards, notes of encouragement and congratulations on promotions to team members;
- Providing devotionals (e.g., "The Upper Room," "Prayers for Courage," etc.);
- Hosting ministry team members when they return from deployment and inviting them to share their stories and ministries in worship and fellowship settings.
11. Be aware that the deployment cycle includes a long post-deployment reintegration period.
This time is often very difficult for service members and families. Typical stressors include:
- sorting through personal and family system changes that occur during a deployment;
- emerging medical issues;
- the need to forgive and be forgiven; and
- returning members' ambivalence about separating from friendships forged under difficult conditions.
Reservists and those who leave the military upon return from deployment may also face difficulty in finding work and/or setbacks in accessing veterans' educational or medical benefits.
12. Above all, don't lose interest.
Polls indicate the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are much less interesting to the people in the United States than the economy. We have many Americans who are serving and who have served in these two locations, plus their families. We want to support them!
Originally compiled by the Rev. Bruce Fenner, the Rev. Tom Carter, the Rev. Stephen Wall-Smith and the Rev. Robert Phillips, all United Methodist clergy. Carter is director of endorsement for the United Methodist Endorsing Agency, a part of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.