A Ministry of Presence: Westminster Alumni on the Frontlines

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the interviewees and not to any branch of the United States Armed Services.

“You never know what’s going to come around the corner. That is the life of being a military chaplain, and yet what great opportunities do come through tragic experiences. This is where a chaplain can provide pastoral care, shepherding, and missionary work in ways that you never asked or imagined.” What came around the corner for Chaplain (Captain) Doug Hess was a striking example of the unpredictable in a chaplain’s ministry. While ministering to a grieving family, Doug asked about a nearby Bible, and an unexpected owner announced himself. Hess describes this solider as a formidable, 260-pound, barrel-chested man. The story Doug heard that day has remolded his view of the chaplaincy: this powerful man confessed to being a one-time enemy of the King, but through the influence of a faithful chaplain, God had prodded his heart, exposed his sin, and brought a thirst for the truth of God’s Word. Thus, in a desert, spiritually and physically, a sinner found living water.

     Chaplaincy is a ministry opportunity where doors open in unexpected places. By God’s blessing and faithfulness, Westminster Theological Seminary has the privilege to shepherd and instruct chaplains who serve in various places throughout God’s Kingdom. This article is a window into the ministries of these alumni and an encouragement to consider God’s call for ministers to enter a ministry of presence.

Incarnational Ministry

     There are many stories that show a need for the compassion and care of Christ’s gospel. Chaplain (Colonel) Robert Nay recounted an abundance of ministerial opportunities. Ranging from preaching the Gospel during Christmas eve services along the Macedonian Serbian-Kosovo border to powerful opportunities to simply sit and mourn with those who have lost the lives of loved ones—mourning with those who lost loved ones in combat or comforting the mother of a still-born. The ministry of a chaplain is an incarnate ministry. Following in our Master’s footsteps, a chaplain “goes to where the people are.”

"Following in our Master’s footsteps, a chaplain goes to where the people are."

     This incarnational ministry is an incredible call for the kingdom. Chaplain Candidate (2dLT, Army) Luke Bae, a current Westminster student commissioned earlier this year, was called to the chaplaincy by this reality. Bae recalled the famous quote about there being no atheists in foxholes and then opened up about the chaplain’s duty. “The chaplain’s role is to be in the foxhole with the soldiers when they need somebody the most. That somebody might be someone to just hold their hand, or someone
to be scared with them, or someone to actually provide them with some kind of spiritual or religious support. And I think the nature of the military allows those special circumstances to happen, and I just want to be there.”

     The same is true for those who seek to serve in a variety of other capacities as well. Chaplain (Lt. Colonel) David Wersler of the Civil Air Patrol described chaplaincy as a ministry of presence. Whether a chaplain in the hospital, fire department, police force, or the military, the ministry is to those around you. Chaplains are there with people. “You are dressed like them. They know who you are because you are wearing the same uniform as them.” The incarnational aspect of a chaplain’s duty
is that he interacts with people where they are. Chaplains minister to ordinary people who wouldn’t ordinarily be in church. This call is one to be always ready and prepared to serve in unexpected areas.

     The military, by its nature, puts people in situations where death is all too common. Add to that the reality that sinful people live in a broken and sinful world, and the result is catastrophic. Death, depression, anxiety, domestic problems (including but not limited to adultery), and hopelessness are serious issues that demand serious solutions. Nay said that “We bring hope. We bring life, eternal life. But it is the Holy Spirit that moves us, through us, and in the hearts of people that we are with.” But, as Hess notes, there is a temptation to give into man pleasing behaviors and practices. So, what is it that encourages chaplains to have the gentle, yet bold, love required in such painful circumstances?

Theology Matters

     Where the word is faithfully preached, chapel attendance grows.” Nay has seen the effect of God’s Word when it is brought before those that suffer. Nay worked with the Japanese army and helped them to reduce the number of suicides by 20 percent. When I asked him about this, his response was so simple. “It’s the theology of who God is.” Nay went on to talk about Van Tillian apologetics, the Creator-creature distinction, and the proper understanding of human nature. “Remembering who God is and who we are is foundational.”

     The ultimate reality is that the Bible is the foundation for ministry. Nay continues, “Westminster did not teach me every method; they provided a foundation. When I encountered other situations, I would have principles to guide my decision making.” For Nay, apologetics is not a battle of the wits and persuasive words but a demonstration of the Spirit’s power and understanding the world’s philosophy. It’s a recognition that the battle belongs to the Lord.

     Chaplain (Colonel) Pete Sniffin, who served as the Commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School and Director of the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center, addressed the importance of a deep education: “Anytime you go deeper, what you provide can go deeper.” Unfortunately, the reality is that the education some chaplains receive leaves them with much less to offer to the spiritually or physically wounded. “When someone is in the hospital, you want their chaplain to be a person of substance. We don’t want the lowest common denominator for trauma. Chaplains need to be persons of substance.”

"Unfortunately, the reality is that the education some chaplains receive leaves them with much less to offer to the spiritually or physically wounded."

     Hess stated that his training at both Westminster and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have been paramount for him, helping him grow in his convictions and to be bold—a boldness that has helped Hess in counseling through hundreds of cases of adultery. Despite the enormity of those challenges, Hess recognized that “we can’t say the mess is too difficult. We have Christ and all his resources. I believe he has the tools to help heal marriages even from the most damaging sins like adultery. Adultery is a big deal when you are far away from home.”

     So, what does a Reformed understanding of Scripture have to offer on the frontlines? Isn’t the typical seminary graduate just “a head on a stick”? Chaplain (Captain) Jeremy Coenen’s description of his education couldn’t be further from this caricature. “We have to be ready for anything.” While all Westminster curricula set the foundation, Van Tillian apologetics had the most significant impact on Coenen. “Meeting people and interacting with people who have a different worldview requires real answers for the deepest longings and the deepest concerns that they have. So, the most practical was apologetics.”

     Coenen also went into detail on Westminster’s perspective on Scripture and hermeneutics. Many soldiers were not familiar with the idea of the unfolding of revelation. A majority of those Coenen met came from a legalistic background. “When you lay out the unfolding revelation, this way that God has graciously called people to himself ever since Genesis 3, it’s refreshing. It’s the Gospel. When you start sharing the truth of the Reformed understanding of the Gospel, it’s almost shocking for people when they get that perspective. The Gospel becomes fresh air. It becomes water in the desert.”

     This Reformed understanding of the Gospel does provide much you can’t find elsewhere. Hess described a host of Reformed resources, but there was one work
in particular that a Reformed heritage was able to offer. Hess notes that “to this day, military men are blown away by the Heidelberg Catechism.” Hess taught the Heidelberg through Bible studies and recognized the power of the first question of the Heidelberg:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

     “Think of what it means to the soldier, to the airman, to the Marine, to the sailor,” said Hess. “Think about what it means to the person out there who is away from their family. Not a hair from my head will fall without the Father’s will.”

"Think about what it means to the person out there who is away from their family. Not a hair from my head will fall without the Father’s will."

     Reformed confessions and creeds, a redemptive-historical hermeneutic, a biblical anthropology, a recognition of God’s sovereignty, and a Creator-creature distinction have provided these men a way to interact with boldness and confidence: their substance is God’s Word.

The Church and the Chaplain

     Not all are called to be chaplains. “It’s not for the faint of heart. We are ministering to people who are anti-Christian or people who are suffering because of their own sin or just the sin of the world," Coenen noted. “Additionally, chaplaincy can be lonely.” The reality of facing darkness coupled with frequent moves can be overwhelming. However, those who minister in Christ’s name are not called to go it alone. Through our common union to Christ, we are called to edify, and build up one another. There is a multitude of ways the church can support its chaplains.

"Through our common union to Christ, we are called to edify, and build up one another. There is a multitude of ways the church can support its chaplains."

     First, encourage those who are seeking ministry to consider chaplaincy. While it won’t necessarily be a comfortable ride, Coenen notes that those who have heard the call of ministry shouldn’t ignore “the cross-cultural ministry in the United States of America.” Hess echoed this, “It’s absolutely amazing. The places I’ve been, the things I’ve gotten to do, and the people I’ve been able to expose Reformed theology to that would never enter a Presbyterian church.” Chaplains speak into the everyday operations of the military. They have an opportunity to influence marriages and children and even speak into the foundations of religious liberty in America. Nay puts it well: “If you want to directly engage the world, you go out to the world, and you minister and care for them. People who you would not normally minister to will become your ministry.”

     Second, encourage those considering chaplaincy to consider Westminster. A rigorous program is necessary for a rigorous profession. As Sniffin recognizes, the MDiv program at Westminster ensures that a substantial education will be provided. Additionally, Westminster requires two semesters of apologetics—a rarity at any seminary, and especially significant for chaplaincy. One thread that ran through each of these chaplains’ stories was their dependence on a Van Tillian apologetic.

     Third, reach out to chaplains in your community. Chaplains, and their families, often move from place to place. Invest fully in them while you have the opportunity. Learn their names, invite them into your homes. And ask to hear their stories. Space doesn’t allow for the testimonies of each of these men interviewed, but if only you could hear all of their stories! It is a great blessing to hear how God works in seemingly impossible situations. Utilize the ministries of chaplains as you have opportunities. In short, minister to them and their families as you allow them to minister to you and your own.

     Finally, pray for your chaplains. Pray for their courage, boldness, and wisdom. Pray for their protection. Pray for their families, their marriages, their children, and the flock they shepherd. And pray for those who minister to chaplains, that they would be incarnational in their approaches as well. Pray that a chaplain’s ministry will be one where they glorify their King as they present a gospel message to an unchurched people. Pray for this incarnational, cross-cultural ministry of presence.

Alumni interviewed were Chaplain (Captain) Jeremy Coenen, Chaplain (Captain) Doug Hess, Chaplain (Colonel) Robert Nay, Chaplain (Lt. Colonel) David Wersler, Chaplain Candidate (2nd Lieutenant) Luke Bae, and Chaplain (Colonel) Pete Sniffen. Pete was vital to the entire interview process and the development of questions. I had no perspective on what to even ask about until Pete sat down with me. Truthfully, these men each blessed me in enormous ways, and I have developed incredible relationships from them.

If you or someone you know are interested in learning more about chaplaincy in the armed services, contact jrichard@wts.edu.

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