No matter whether they are deployed overseas or stationed at home, the men and women who serve in the armed forces make significant sacrifices. They often leave home and community to serve. They deal with boredom and loneliness and separation from their loved ones. If they are involved in combat, violence and loss can significantly affect their mind, body and spirit.
The effects can be serious. According to the Department of Defense, in 2017, 285 active-duty members and 209 reserve members of the United States military committed suicide. Other research indicates that as many as 20 percent of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, while many others are diagnosed with depression.
Churches can play a significant role in providing emotional, spiritual and practical support not only for those who serve, but also for their families.
1. Get to know them
Military personnel include men and women who serve in any branch of the military, including the National Guard. If you live on or near a military base, military personnel and their families may be very visible in the community. If not, they can be easily overlooked.
Your church may be able to minister to parents, siblings, grandparents, spouses, fiancés and children of servicemen and women. All have special needs related to their situations. In order to help, you have to get to know them as individuals first. In addition, military chaplains and even the civilian contractors who are serving alongside the military also have needs.
"The United Methodist Endorsing Agency has over 400 clergy leaders serving in all branches of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs," says Rev. G. Scott Henry, Colonel, USAF (Ret.). "Please pray for our chaplains deployed around the world in ministry to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard," says the former chaplain.
Henry says that one way for churches to get to know servicemen and women is to actually serve alongside them. "We are actively seeking young clergy to consider service as a military chaplain," he says.
Another way to get to know the military in your community is through a survey or questionnaire in your weekly bulletin or at your welcome desk. You could also use an online form on your church website.
- Ask people if they or someone they know are military personnel who are not deployed. If so, ask them to identify the branch and whether they are active duty or reserve.
- Invite them to list needs or concerns so the church might be able to pray for them specifically.
Remember, that even those military personnel who are not deployed are often far away from their families for great lengths of time. Use care in how you word offers to help. Make it clear that they can ask for help even if their spouse or loved one is not technically deployed.
In addition, if a uniformed serviceman or woman enters your congregation as a guest, personally welcome them and express your thanks for their service. Ask them how your church can assist them or pray for them.
You also may want to check out Operation We Are Here or contact your local American Red Cross to determine ways to get to know and help the military men and women in your community or to learn how you can partner with other organizations who are already helping them.
2. Look for ways to help
While the church cannot solve every problem that a military family may encounter, you can minister to those who serve in many practical ways.
- Ask for volunteers who will offer services such as free child care or help with transportation for parents whose spouses are serving away from home.
- Recruit volunteers who are willing to perform household maintenance and car repairs for the family of a deployed individual.
- Develop an "adopt a military family" ministry. Ask a family to pair up with a military family to ensure consistent communication, fellowship and support.
- Pray for military men and women and their families. Identify prayer partners who will periodically call and check up on them and send notes of encouragement.
- Organize meals for families who have recently lost a loved one, whose loved one has come home injured or who are struggling through especially difficult times.
Remember, help shouldn't be a one-time, feel-good experience for the volunteer. Military families need consistent support, to know someone is there for them when they need help. They need regular, intentional and consistent contact, support and prayer.
3. Point them to the right resources
There are many ways to support our military. But, sometimes the solutions are more complex than fixing a leaky faucet or finding a babysitter. In the face of physical, psychological, spiritual or marital difficulties, the best help may be pointing them in the right direction.
- Help them maintain healthy families. Consider offering financial, parenting and marital support and counseling resources.
- Offer grief counseling to those who have lost loved ones.
- Help your church staff and leaders to be aware of the signs of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Make certain they are well-informed about mental health resources that are available. Display local phone numbers of organizations where people can get the help they need.
- Educate church leaders on how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and intervene when necessary.
- Consider offering military-only Bible studies or small group opportunities. Sometimes it's easier for people to share with those who have similar life experiences.
- Be willing to consider financial help or transportation to doctor's and therapy appointments.
- Familiarize yourself with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Wounded Warrior Project, Military OneSource and other organizations that may be able to help provide information or meet needs that your church can't.
4. Acknowledge, appreciate and affirm
One of the simplest yet most effective means of supporting military personnel is to honor and thank them for their service and sacrifice.
- Consider hosting a special retreat or event for spouses or families.
- Implement a once-a-year "Military Appreciation Day" to honor both active duty personnel and veterans.
- Ask Sunday school classes to send letters or cards to deployed people, or send care packages, especially during the holidays.
- Include a time of honor and remembrance during worship services on military holidays, or find other ways to reach out on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
- Publicly pray for and acknowledge the deployments and return of any military personnel in your congregation.
There are many ways to care for military members and their families. They want to be cared for, remembered and included. Communicate with them often. Ask them to participate in church activities and service opportunities. Give them the freedom to say "no" if they are too busy or too stressed, but let them know that they are not only appreciated but also needed in the body of Christ.