By Kathy L. Gilbert
United Methodist News Service
SEOUL, Korea — Military commanders stationed in countries along the Pacific Rim say they would not think of going into war without the chaplains who serve as their treasured "battle buddies."
"I need chaplains to take care of the soldiers so I can take care of their training," said Col. Jeffery K. Ludwig, deputy commanding officer of the U.S. Army's 19th Sustainment Command in Deaju, Korea.
Chaplaincy is the Army's second oldest division behind the infantry. These unique officers guarantee religious freedom for U.S. troops while providing spiritual care through faiths that range from Christianity, Judaism and Islam to Wicca, goddess worshipping, neo-paganism and druidism.
While most military attention in the United States focuses on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of young men and women serve in other dangerous and lonely places. Standing side-by-side with them today are 61 United Methodist clergy serving overseas.
Overall, 339 United Methodist pastors serve as chaplains in every branch of the U.S. military worldwide — 139 on active duty and 200 in the Reserves and National Guard. But those numbers are down following a 9/11 surge of volunteers, according to the Rev. Tom Carter, who works with the United Methodist Endorsing Agency to provide pastoral support to chaplains and pastoral counselors.
"This has been due to more clergy entering in mid-career, and they do not qualify due to age requirements," Carter said, adding that the greatest need for chaplains today is in the Army. "The Army is growing in numbers," he said.
In August, Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata and Carter traveled to Korea, Japan and Hawaii to visit United Methodist clergy serving as chaplains in the Pacific Rim.
They brought with them the blessings of The United Methodist Church and left with new insights into the role of chaplains, the importance of their ministry and the need for churches to care for military families and returning troops.
Hoshibata reflected on five years of a harsh war in Iraq that have left men and women with emotional, physical and spiritual wounds. He said churches must care for family members left behind to deal with the pain and worry of knowing that loved ones are facing danger far from home. Later, congregations must provide an open-arms welcome to members of the armed forces returning home from battle.
"One of the enduring remembrances I will take away from this experience has been conversations with the chaplains who talk about the need that we will have as we return our service personnel from places of battle and combat," said Hoshibata, who serves the church's Oregon-Idaho Area. "The need is becoming evident even now as we have seen service personnel who are wounded physically as well as mentally and emotionally, those who are suffering because of battle wounds and also because of post-traumatic stress syndrome."
The United Methodist Endorsing Agency, a division of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, recruits, trains and supports United Methodist pastors called to serve in the military. Every year or two, the Nashville, Tenn.-based agency sends a staff member and a representative from the Council of Bishops to visit chaplains serving in the Pacific Rim and Europe. The board also holds spiritual retreats for chaplains and their families.
"Regular visits to our chaplains and pastoral counselors serving in overseas areas help us extend our care and concern to our ordained clergy who have answered the call of 'the world is my parish,'" Carter said, quoting Methodism founder John Wesley.
Talking to commanders and supervisors gives the church's Endorsing Agency an opportunity to evaluate the ministry provided. "We also see the outstanding ministry being performed," he said.
Chaplains view the occasional tours from denominational leaders as a gift from the church.
"I feel like a kid. I’ve never had a bishop to visit me," said Chaplain Charles Jackson as Hoshibata visited him in Seoul. "It’s great that the church has sent him to be with us during this time. And I hope that his visit has been very successful and we have educated him in what we do so that the church can see us as a global outreach."
All the commanders meeting with Hoshibata and Carter expressed deep appreciation for United Methodist chaplains.
"The training and education the church gives to the clergy makes them especially well prepared to go into a diverse ministry setting," Hoshibata said. "It is important for us to remember that, as United Methodists, we offer to our armed personnel a special gift of not only our effectiveness and our training and our skills, but also our willingness to care for all persons."
Local churches and communities of faith must prepare to offer returning military and their families "a special arm of care and love and compassion," he said.
"I would like to see our churches hear the message of the need to care for those who are coming back from battle … and welcome them back and give them the appreciation that they are so worthy of for the sacrifice that they are making on behalf of our freedoms.
"As a member of the Council of Bishops, I have readily signed on to the statement of the council urging us to work toward peace and to end the war in Iraq," he said.
Hoshibata said the visits to military installations allowed The United Methodist Church to declare its appreciation for "the work of our service personnel, their dedication and their sacrifice … as well as our support for the chaplains who give them the spiritual support that they so much need."
It is an appreciation echoed by those in the trenches of battle.
"We are a treasured ministry in the military," Jackson said. "Nothing happens without a chaplain."