For chaplains back from Iraq, a focus on the mundane

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

ALEXANDRIA, VA. _ A year after honoring the dead with soldiers in Iraq, the Rev. John Weatherly was back to more mundane ministerial tasks at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

A parishioner caught him in the hall to ask permission to announce an upcoming yard sale during the 10 a.m. worship service. He directed another to a red binder to note a prayer request. Later, he led a dedication service of an education wing to honor a longtime parishioner.

“I think it is tough to do, two different types of ministry, military and civilian,” said Weatherly, an Army chaplain with the Virginia National Guard. “It is a different mind-set.”

Five years after the start of the Iraq war, more than 1,500 chaplains are currently serving in the National Guard or Reserves. For military chaplains back from Iraq, the transition to ordinary ministry can be challenging.

They return from the horrors of war to answer questions about flowers and carpet in the sanctuaries they had left behind. Some rejoin their congregations, while others start new ones or move on to nonministerial positions.

Some denominations offer retreats for returning chaplains, and the military includes them with all other troops in opportunities to regroup. Others start planning before the orders arrive to head overseas.

Last November, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod established Operation Barnabas, which assigns a chaplain to visit with the families, church leaders and congregations of pastors who are to be deployed as chaplains.

“We kind of want to say, `Hey, you’re losing your pastor for a time, to send him off to care for your neighbors,”’ said Chaplain Mike Moreno, the director of Operation Barnabas. “But you’re not alone.”

Moreno, who served in Iraq in 2003 and who remains a Marine Reserve chaplain in Kansas City, said a pastor’s thoughts may sometimes wander ahead to an upcoming deployment.

“I’ll tell them that your pastor will leave before he goes,” Moreno said.

Likewise, when chaplains return, they may still be needed _ at least initially _ by the troops they’ve been with 24/7.

“It can be a rocky return for a lot of the service members, and they’re going to want to call their chaplain,” Moreno said. That’s partly why he asks congregations to give their pastor two to four weeks to assume pastoral duties after returning home.

Weatherly gives other chaplains similar advice. But even as they give their pastors some space, congregations can also be part of the chaplain’s homecoming when they return from war.

At St. Mark’s, Weatherly, 56, was greeted with a celebration in the fellowship hall, which was decorated with a huge “Welcome back, Father John” banner made by the church’s youth.

While he was away, the congregation kept him in their prayers and sent him e-mail messages.

“We were able to e-mail him the whole time, which was really great,” said parishioner Sheryl Sims. “I think it was good for him because he got a bit of home and it was also good for us because we were very worried about him, of course.”

Weatherly, a lieutenant colonel, said he was doing a lot of praying, too.

“You encourage the living, comfort the wounded and honor the dead,” he said, recalling how he waited for his phone to ring in Iraq’s Anbar Province to know when to head to the makeshift hospitals to meet arriving casualties and help those suddenly grieving the loss of comrades.

“It was scary,” he said. “You don’t want to say something really stupid. You pray all the time.”


While full-time ministers deal with the day-to-day stresses of congregants,a battlefield chaplain’s work can be more complex, said the Rev. Stuart Kenworthy, who returned to Christ (Episcopal) Church in Washington, D.C., from Iraq in 2006.

“You have all the human relation issues and spiritual issues there that you have here in a parish church, but they’re exacerbated by stress and separation from loved ones and familiar support networks,” Kenworthy said.


Making the transition back can be difficult for chaplains who return to a markedly different form of ministry at home.

Chaplain Maj. James D. Moore, 50, said he was only able to return to his church for two months before he left for a full-time chaplaincy job with the Virginia National Guard. Moore is now also an interim pastor of a Southern Baptist Church in Virgilina, Va.

“My priorities of ministry were readjusted,” said Moore, who helped escort the remains of 35 soldiers killed in action when he served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

“I was no longer concerned about stained-glass windows and carpet and whether the poinsettias were watered.”


Chaplain Brig. Gen. Douglas Lee, senior chaplain of the U.S. Army Reserve, said a new center is being developed at the Army chaplain school in South Carolina to assist returning chaplains and chaplain assistants.

“It’s a proactive attempt to care for these chaplains and assistants who just give so much when they’re in Iraq,” said Lee, who pastors a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Newark, Del.

Weatherly, whose church is about eight miles from the Pentagon, had one advantage many returning chaplains might not have _ parishioners with personal military experience. One of them, Michael Foughty, successfully argued that Weatherly deserved a raise.

“This is the right thing to do,” Foughty, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said on Weatherly’s behalf. “Can we do anything less for our pastor who is in harm’s way?”


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