TOPEKA, Kan. - Like most ministers of the Christian
gospel, John Potter thinks a lot about his “flock.”
“I've got a rather unique parish,” said Potter. “It's about
5,300 people. They all dress the same on Sundays, they know
how to use an M16 just like a spoon.”
Potter, a major
in the Kansas Army National Guard, is the deputy command
chaplain for Joint Forces Headquarters in Topeka. As such,
he is one of a handful of chaplains in the Kansas National
Guard and the only full-time chaplain.
May 21, 2015 - U.S. Army Chaplain (Maj.) John Potter is the deputy command chaplain, Joint Forces Headquarters, Topeka, Kansas." (Photo by Steve Larson, Kansas Adjutant General's Public Affairs Office)
battalion and every major command has a chaplain,” said
Potter. “If we were full up, we would have 16 chaplains.”
To be a military chaplain, Potter explained, candidates
must by ordained by their own faith group.
Christian side of the house, you have to have a Master of
Divinity degree,” said Potter, who received his degree from
Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
will vary from those other categories of chaplain, but they
would have to have something that is equivalent to a Master
“We have Buddhists, Christians, Hindus,
Jewish chaplains, and Muslim chaplains. It doesn't matter if
you're a rabbi or imam, they still have to follow those same
“I actually came in the Army as an E-4, as a
specialist,” said Potter. “I was a chaplain's assistant. I
was very happy with that role. In time, I felt that God was
calling me, kind of nudging me to do more with that. I had
already graduated from K-State, already had my undergrad and
I never wanted to go to school again in my life.
God kept nudging,” he continued. “I found out the National
Guard would help pay for that, so I started seminary, became
Potter explained that once a
Soldier has his religious credentials, they can go to
Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Jackson, South
“You learn how to first, be a Soldier,” he
said. “You do everything that would happen to any Soldier at
basic training except we don't fire a weapon because we're
not combatants. The last half of the program is focusing on
your role as a chaplain. Not just being an officer, not just
how to salute, how to wear the uniform, but how do you
actually perform and how do you become a chaplain. They're
not teaching you how to be a minister that already happened
at seminary – but how can you be a counselor.”
to becoming a chaplain, Chaplain (Capt.) Dan Pempin,
chaplain for the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 137th Infantry
Regiment, already knew how to be a Soldier.
commissioned in the infantry in 2000,” said Pempin, “so I
started off my career as an infantry officer on active duty
and did that for the first four years of my career. Then I
went into an inactive reserve status for about two and a
half years before I rejoined in the reserves and served in a
training support battalion out of Leavenworth, Kansas.
During that time I felt the calling to become a chaplain and
started the process of seminary.
“When you become a
chaplain, you have two routes you can take, a federal or a
state. I chose to go the state route because I wanted to
serve Kansas as a chaplain.”
Potter said a military
chaplain has two primary responsibilities – to perform
religious services and provide religious and other support.
“The big thing that we provide is counseling,” he said.
“The unique thing with that is it's confidential. Any time
somebody wants to talk to a chaplain, it's always going to
be private, it's going to be off-record, It doesn't go up
the chain of command, it's not shared with individuals
unless that Soldier gives you a release to share that
“We, as chaplains, have privileged
communication,” explained Pempin, “which means I have no
requirements to provide any information they've given to me
outside of that relationship that I've established.”
Although counseling may involve a variety of issues,
relationships, financial problems and substance abuse
generally head the list for Soldiers.
“There are a
lot of challenges for anyone who's married,” said Potter.
“Military couples have a higher rate of divorce, they have
more risk factors because they're frequently separated. All
these things can add to some difficulty in military life.”
“When I was in Southeast Kansas with the 891st Engineer
Battalion, employment was a big deal,” said Pempin. “There
are just not a lot jobs out there for Soldiers or we weren't
getting Soldiers correctly linked up. So, there are
financial problems. ‘Hey, I can't pay this bill' or ‘I need
“When you come to the chaplain, it's
always on the lowest level,” said Pempin. “I think a lot of
Soldiers try to self-cure themselves or to go as far as they
can by themselves. So, normally, when they come to see me,
it's moments when they're very depressed or they have a lot
of issues. Luckily, we chaplains have this reputation out
there that says we're approachable. People can come and see
us when they need help with things the average person may
not be able to fix.
“What's good for me, as a
chaplain,” Pempin said, “is here in Kansas, we have a lot of
family programs, we have a lot of assistance, other things
“One of the great things we do is the
Strong Bonds program,” said Potter. “We do these marriage
retreats or marriage enrichment programs. That's one of the
best parts of my job, it really is. Just helping couples
focus on their marriage, keep it strong, keep it vibrant. A
relationship can kind of wither on the vine if we're not
feeding it in the right way. It reminds us of how we need to
connect as husband and wife. How we need to connect as a
couple and work on our family.”
Potter and Pempin
agreed that building relationships with the Soldiers is
vital to their ministry.
“I'm a chaplain who believes
you earn the relationships you have with the Soldiers, so I
want Soldiers to see me doing the things that they do,” said
Pempin. “Being a prior-service guy, being in the infantry, I
understand soldiering. I believe Soldiers should see their
chaplain being a Soldier as well, being able to perform a
lot of the skills they have the ability to do. To build that
unit relationship, those are things that are important to me
and I believe they're important to the Soldiers.”
“Where your unit goes, you go,” said Potter. “A chaplain
will go to the range. I'm not going to go shoot, but that's
where your unit is, that's where the soldiers go.
“There's a real beauty in being a chaplain at the battalion
level because you really doing relational ministry,” he
continued. “You're going out to the motor pool and you find
out if someone's been laid off. You help them, you pray for
them, you offer support and help. You find out if somebody's
had a miscarriage, you go visit them at the hospital. You go
help families when a family member dies. You go help when
somebody's at risk of suicide.
“Ministry can be
messy. It can be dirty, it can get sweaty,” said Potter. “It
can get nasty at times. But that's when you have closeness,
that's when you can share that there's compassion. That's
when you can talk about what grace really is and just how
we're supposed to function.
“My boss talks about
loving one another. Those aren't just words on a page. It's
tough to make that happen.”
Often, their ministry
takes Potter and Pempin outside of the office and outside of
regular business hours.
“Some days can be feast or
famine,” said Potter. “Think of it like a fire department.
They're there, they're ready. Some days you don't have a
fire. When you do, everything stops. Whatever you had
planned and you go on the call because there's a problem.
“The phone can ring and we may have a casualty
assistance visit. We may have a couple that's had a fight
and someone got kicked out of the house and they want to
talk,” he said. “We can meet here in the office. I can go
meet them at a McDonald's, not a problem. We're always
willing to talk and meet somebody.”
“We are chaplains
24-7,” said Pempin, whose workday job is alcohol and drug
control officer for the Kansas Army National Guard managing
the substance abuse program. “Lots of times we're contacted
throughout the week to help Soldiers with certain
situations. We are to be used by the unit whenever they need
us. If that's during the week, that's fine.
emails this morning from Soldiers who need me to call them
later on today,” said Pempin. “You're always a chaplain,
almost like you're always a Soldier. If duty calls during
certain times, you must answer that call.”
chaplain also entails a balancing act between military
duties and religious responsibilities, particularly when a
Soldier is of a different faith.
“In Kansas, there
are 78 different faith groups in the Kansas Army National
Guard,” said Potter. “That's a lot of religious diversity in
our force. That's not a bad thing. Everybody is entitled to
the same constitutional right to worship as they see fit.
That's the beauty of America.
“I'm the caretaker for
them,” he continued. “I'm not trying to sign people up for
Sunday school classes. My mission is to protect their
religious freedom. They have the right to worship as they
see fit. So if I have a Wiccan in my battalion, I will find
out what that person needs. If I have a Buddhist in my
battalion, I will see if they need some Buddhist prayer
beads. You could even have multiple Roman Catholic Soldiers.
I can't perform Mass, but ‘Do you need rosaries? Would you
like a Saint Christopher medal? Would you like a Roman
“The military is a plural
organization,” said Potter. “There are more atheists than
Southern Baptists in the active Army. They're all your
Soldiers, though. It doesn't matter what's on their dog
tags. Those are all my Soldiers. They are all my military
“When I counsel a Soldier, the first thing
that I let the Soldier know is the only counseling I can
provide them is based upon my faith,” said Pempin. “So, if
they want to ask a question, then my opinions or my thought
process is always going to filter through my own faith
background. Most of them are absolutely fine with that. It
doesn't bother them because they have a question or they
have the need for a solution and sometimes they don't really
care where that comes from. For me, I just try to be open
“As a Christian, I believe in relational
evangelism,” said Potter. “I believe that a good Christian
witness is demonstrating love and faith, just like Christ,
to someone I may not agree with. It may open a door where we
have a spiritual conversation down the road.”
chaplain is going out there and trying to beat people over
the head and get them into services, you might be a really
good preacher, but how relational are you going to be with
those people who are outside the Christian faith?” asked
Potter. “How can you attract someone to your faith? Through
your behavior and through your example, through the words
In building those relationships and
protecting his Solders' rights, Potter has been rewarded
with multiple ministry opportunities.
“I've had some
of the most interesting Bible questions I've ever had on the
firing range,” said Potter. “Everybody is shooting their
M16s and someone just walks up and ‘I was reading the Book
of Revelation last night and it says here in 19:16... did
Jesus have a tattoo?'”
‘It says that
Jesus had some marks on his leg. 19:16. Look it up.'
‘Okay, let's grab the Bible. Show me where you're at. Let's
look at it together.'
“That's the conversation I
had,” said Potter. “That's one of the greatest compliments,
that somebody trusts you enough to come and ask you a
“I had a group of Buddhists on
my second deployment. I asked them ‘What do you need? What
can I do to help?' Because I went out and I sought them out,
when there was some family emergencies, they came and talked
to me. They asked me to pray for them.
“They asked a
Christian minister to pray for them,' he repeated. “That's
By Steve Larson, Kansas Adjutant General's Public Affairs Office
Comment on this article