Bishops reflect on military chaplaincy

Bishop Michael Lozano at his bishop installation service. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Lozano

This year, for the first time in the church’s history, the ELCA installed two synod bishops who are serving as reserve military chaplains. Michael Lozano is bishop of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod and a chaplain in the Army Reserve, and Bill Tesch is bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod and a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve. Living Lutheran asked the bishops about their experiences as military chaplains and how congregations can care for service members and veterans.

Living Lutheran: What motivated you to consider military chaplaincy?

Lozano: My motivation was in response to Operation Just Cause (the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989). A TV interview captured two soldiers saying, “I think I killed someone. I saw dead people.” My brothers, both younger and both NCOs (noncommissioned officers), were serving on active duty. I knew there were chaplains. I found myself talking back to the TV, “Where are the chaplains?” And the response was, “Yes, Michael, where are the chaplains?” I found myself calling the Pentagon to find out how to become a chaplain, and I’ve served soldiers, civilians and their families since June 1990.

Tesch: I was recruited. I’d never considered military service. Prior to responding to the urgent and persistent requests of the local military chaplain at the 114th Fighter Wing, my only interaction with the military had been to protest whenever the Department of Defense visited the campus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I finally agreed to look into it only to get my friend, the chaplain, off my back. What I found was an intriguing ministry and some pretty amazing people who were serving and making sacrifices. I felt called to stand with them.

In what ways do you believe ELCA pastors and congregations are uniquely equipped to serve U.S. service members?

Lozano: ELCA pastors bring a theology of grace. A theology of law and gospel. An understanding of how God works both through the church and through governing authorities to make God’s reign known. Our broad ecumenical relations also act as a bridge for many faith groups to work with and through ELCA chaplains in a military setting. Our commitment to experiential pastoral care, preaching and management within a parish enhances and qualifies ELCA pastors to be military chaplains.

Tesch: Our expression of the gospel with our theological insight around two kingdoms—two ways God works in and through us—and our understanding of accompaniment makes us uniquely qualified to be able to serve with excellence in the diverse military context. We are one of the few members of the chaplain corps who can truly serve everyone. Commanders love us because we don’t pick and choose who is worthy of our service. We just love the neighbor God places in front of us.

Most pastors are busy. What would you say to a congregation or synod that isn’t excited about “loaning” its clergy to the military?

Lozano: ELCA pastors are not “loaned” to the military. ELCA pastors working as military chaplains are an extension of the local parish and synod ministries. And as far as our Lutheran-ness can allow, we should be proud that our pastors serve in the active, Guard and Reserve components of our country’s military. What a great means of witnessing to God’s love.

Tesch: I’d say they need to expand their vision and their sense of God’s mission. Congregations with pastors who serve in the Guard or Reserve are partners in their ministry. What they get in return is a pastor who has received world-class training and has had transformative life experiences. Everyone benefits.

We are church together for the sake of the world. How have you witnessed your chaplaincy ministry bringing these words to life? Do you have a memory that would serve as an example of this?

Lozano: When I was deployed to Iraq in 2003-04, I had eyes-on experience of the needs of the people of Iraq. I was able to connect back to my local Lutheran churches to provide care packages and clothing to the people of Iraq.

Tesch: On my last deployment, I served as the wing chaplain at a strategic location in southwest Asia. We had a shortage of some of the most cherished comfort items and goodies that we gave to airmen and soldiers as they entered the war zone. I sent a message to my home synod, and within two weeks congregations had sent enough supplies for the next six months.

Another memory: As Ramadan approached, my staff and I made it our goal to ensure that our Muslim personnel would have the best experience of Ramadan that was possible. A Catholic priest, a Baptist pastor and a Lutheran pastor conspired to champion the free-exercise rights of dozens of our airmen and soldiers. We handed out fresh medjool dates for breaking the fast, established ablution and prayer stations, and drove members into the city for Friday prayers and iftars. One Muslim pilot said to me: “I never imagined a group of Christian clergy would give me the best Ramadan I’ve ever had.”

What would you say to someone who feels called to federal chaplaincy?

Lozano: I’m grateful to them for living out their call. Come engage in the rewarding challenges of military chaplaincy. Come meet some of the greatest people I’ve had the privilege of serving. Come touch people’s lives and years later hear the words, “Thanks, chaplain. You were there when I needed someone.”

Tesch: Talk to me. Talk to a recruiter.  Talk to any chaplain.

What suggestions do you have for how congregations can care for veterans in their communities?

Lozano: Veteran care is an ongoing crisis in our nation. Congregations and agencies within the ELCA play a vital role in supporting our veterans young and old. I encourage congregations and synods, including my own Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, to promote and engage in the care of our nation’s veterans. Turn the phrase “Thank you for your service” into action.

Tesch: The main thing is to care for their families. Don’t ask; just pitch in with help—snow removal, meals, babysitting, etc. Bless the service member when they leave and welcome them home. And keep checking in.

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