Ministry to Military Members (Where There Are None in Town)
Given the location of most United Methodist churches and the average age of most members, ministry to those in the military is a stretch for most of our congregations.
Scott Air Force Base in Belleville is the only military installation of any size within the conference. Many churches that have a long and yellowed “Roll of Honor” list of dozens who served in World War II posted in the fellowship hall (or stashed in a closet off the hall) could not match that output today because of the few young adults involved with the church.
How does The United Methodist Church -- your church and mine -- make a difference in ministry to this group if they aren’t part of our church or no base is in our city? I offer the following responses.
First, define your vision. Does your church really want to have a ministry to those in the military? I don’t ask that to be nasty, but no church can do everything. Do you have a core of people with a passion and interest in offering spiritual support to those in uniform and to their families? Without a group with a vision, it won’t happen and shouldn’t be tried.
Second, assuming there is that vision and core commitment, do an Acts 1:8 assessment. What local (Jerusalem) needs might exist, such as a reserve center or existing programs for possible partnership with local American Legion-AMVET-VFW posts? What Judea-Samaria needs exist, such as a military base in the next city or county? What end-of-earth needs exist, such as items for support that can be sent to a United Methodist chaplain identified through the United Methodist Endorsing Agency? Identify the type of need that the congregation is most likely to find meaningful. Be sure to let the military member tell you what is most needed.
Third, do it! Simple is better than complex and low hanging fruit to meet a need is better than trying to begin by shipping twenty tons of peanuts to every soldier in Afghanistan. Get the word out to the community on what you are seeking to do, whether jellybeans to an isolated overseas base (yes, that was one project), to partnership with a local GoodWill veterans home, to a large bundle of DVDs sent to sailors on cruiser, let the church and larger community know.
Fourth, remember that needs continue after wars end. Our involvement in Iraq is essentially over and we are rapidly pulling out of Afghanistan. But our troops will remain deployed away from families for extended periods after official fighting ceases due to the combination of too much mission with too few resources. Whether support for families of deployed reservists or goodies sent to isolated units, remember the end of war is not the end of duty or vigilance.
Fifth, remember Jesus. This is a ministry in his name. Gentle witness through actions is not undercut by appropriate credit given to the One who motivates this outreach and care. To send a care package to a Marine far from home is not to endorse war but to bear witness to caring “for those who have borne the battle.”
(The Rev. Dr. Robert Phillips is a retired Navy chaplain and directing pastor of the Peoria First UMC.)