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Church Military Support that Any Congregation Can Do

Even if you agree that churches should reach out to armed forces members and their families, you might think your church isn't up to the job. But don't discount what your congregation can do in military ministry.

Even if you agree that churches should reach out to armed forces members and their families, you might think your church isn’t up to the job. After all, the news reports PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), TBI (traumatic brain injury), and other problems among returning soldiers.

But don’t discount what your congregation can do in military ministry. “Those issues make news because they’re “not normal. Most of us don’t come home with mental problems and TBI. Most of us come home overweight and bored,” says John J. Morris, a chaplain in the National Guard.

“The real problems we military members deal with are those every church deals with. We need help putting our marriages together again. We need help parenting again, finding a job, and going back to school. And we need to reconnect with God. So military ministry is not overwhelming or beyond the skill level of any church,” he says.

Your church ministry among military people and families can begin before deployment and include practical help and compassionate listening. You’ll also want to be aware of signs of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury).

Before and during deployment

“When church members leave for basic training, it’s important for the pastor to acknowledge that they’ll be going through a very intense, ‘wonderfully painful’ process. Most people leaving the service say it gave them self-discipline and helped them grow up,” says Herman Keizer.

He suggests churches stay involved with members away in the military. The military ministry at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana sends cards, cookies, and gift packages to those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military ministry at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Osprey, Florida focuses on prayer and care packages.

When he was a military base chaplain, Keizer was often asked to baptize infants. “I’d call their home church and suggest they send a baptismal certificate for me to present on behalf of their church. That was meaningful to young people in the military. So if you know a couple from your church is at a base or overseas, and you know they’ll soon have a child, give them a call. Say you’d like to participate in some way.”

LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan dedicated a pillar in their narthex for posting photos, emails, and other news of military members. Often it listed them in the concerns section of the church bulletin.

When a service member is home on leave, especially before deployment overseas, you might ask her or him to stand and be prayed for.

Practical help

People at home need support while their loved ones are deployed. Through its care ministries, Hosanna Lutheran Church in Lakeville, Minnesota provides mentoring for children, lawn mowing, car repairs, and other practical help.

First Baptist Church of Norfolk, Virginia holds a monthly Military Wives Encouragement Group. Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana began a Military Support Group for members with children in the military.

The military ministry at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills, Minnesota uses print, prayers, and displays to help the congregation keep soldiers in mind. Its Operation SAFE (Soldiers and Family Encouragement) includes a monthly support group for those left behind.

First Baptist Church of Belton, Texas sponsors more than a dozen military ministry projects, including Military Family Night Out and a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder support group. Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California offers Bible studies and fellowship for military personnel and families.

The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota has a military ministry representative in every parish that helps soldiers and families before, during, and after deployment. John J. Morris says that many Minnesota churches “do peace and justice advocacy on behalf of veterans, calling the leadership of the church to action in support of military families.”

Military Missions Network, an organization that reaches out to military people and families worldwide, lists military friendly churches and churches with a focused military ministry. However, not all these churches have anything on their church website (at least not easy to find) that shows how they understand or reach out to those in the military.

“The church needs to be more visible in lives of the military. We’re so vulnerable, always dealing with death and worry. Even for a person who’s not a Christian, a church can be a non-threatening environment if you’re sponsoring something to bring soldiers together,” says a combat veteran who asked to remain unnamed.

So, if your church wants to do military ministry, make sure people know about it—and be clear that you welcome anyone, not just members of your congregation.

Listen without judgment

“Well meaning and curious people often have the desire to ask about experiences when a person returns from a combat zone. I’ve been asked to tell during parties, at church picnics, at all sorts of events.

“However, once a service member begins to describe experiences, two things happen. One, those who asked are traumatized by the answer, and, two, the service member, by recalling the events, has just relived them again in their mind and, if severe enough, in their body. Now the picnic that was a re-civilizing, normalizing activity for them has returned them into a place they need to leave behind,” says Laura Bender, a Navy chaplain currently assigned to the USS New York, the ship being built with steel from the World Trade Center.

Bender adds that it’s fine to ask about someone’s time in the military. But consider your timing. “It’s better to leave those conversations to quiet times and places. Enter into them cautiously and without the service member feeling pressured to do so,” she says.

Herman Keizer says that simply being direct works well. “Be sensitive to possible things going on in them. But ask upfront, ‘Do you want to talk about your experience?’ If they say no, then honor that till they’re ready to talk. Others are willing to talk, and then you just have to be willing to listen,” he says.

It’s the listening that trips up some caring church members. “It’s really hard to love a soldier, especially someone that just came back,” admits a veteran of combat in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

This anonymous (by request) soldier adds, “Don’t say, ‘I understand.’ Until you sit among burning bodies all day or have had to sight through a trigger and kill somebody, you cannot understand the guilt or other feelings.

“Greet soldiers with open arms. Be quicker to embrace than to judge. If you ask me, ‘How was your day,’ just listen, don’t analyze me. Open your ears, not your mouth,” he says.

Even being thanked for service can feel like a judgment. Some military members doubt you’d thank them if you knew all they’d had to do.

Remember, too, that people returning from war are more than the sum of their military experiences. Invite them for coffee, a meal, golf, a day at the beach…and enjoy life together without talking about war.

Be aware of PTSD and TBI

“The goodwill that the church earns now by helping families and reaching out with the common issues that soldiers face will pay off down the road, when some soldiers need to come to peace with what they did or didn’t do. And how the church helps families, from separation to reentry, will garner support later on, if families face more serious problems,” Morris says.

Though most people don’t return from war with a mental disorder, up to a fifth do, according to a Rand Study, “Invisible Wounds of War.” A Boston Globe story on this study explains that these disorders range from PTSD or TBI to depression.

Many psychological scars of war go untreated—for several reasons. Career soldiers may fear being stigmatized if they seek mental health treatment. Also, many deployed people are “citizen soldiers,” National Guard members and Reservists who get called up from their jobs in schools, clinics, and businesses. They return to civilian life, rather than to built-in support systems on military bases.

Finally, people at home aren’t necessarily looking for psychological scars among those who served in support units rather than in direct combat. But because insurgency forces in Iraq and Afghanistan use guerilla warfare with improvised explosive devices (IED) and suicide bombers, military support also get injured or see buddies or civilians massacred. Yet people with closed head wounds or TBI might not look visibly disabled.

The combat veteran explains that even after coming home, many soldiers feel they’re “always in survival mode, always on alert. It’s hard to sit still. When someone razzes you on the golf course or is obnoxious in a store, you go into attack mode.”

Though he says churches need to be aware of PTSD signs, he cautions not to judge based on the language they use when they come home. “Be aware of a soldier’s condition, like you might with someone who has cancer, but try not to treat them so differently from everyone else,” he says.

Keizer says churches need to keep making contact, especially three to six months after a military member’s return. When you see anger, reclusiveness, authoritarian behavior or other interpersonal relationship problems, it’s good to address the situation with “nonjudgmental warmth. Just be descriptive, like ‘Here’s what I just saw you do.’ ”

In his 2008 letter to Christian Reformed pastors and elders, Keizer wrote, “Among our returning veterans are men and women with progressive physical and psychological problems, with limited resources to assist them medically, and an increase in behavioral and interpersonal problems….

“Remember that the injury to the psyche and the brain is not immediately manifest and visible. Learn about government and private medical treatment in your local area so you can refer those in need of help.”