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)
“Every 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.
“On the 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.
“That will vary from those other categories of chaplain, but they would have to have something that is equivalent to a Master of Divinity.
“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 rules.
“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.
“But God kept nudging,” he continued. “I found out the National Guard would help pay for that, so I started seminary, became a chaplain-candidate.”
Potter explained that once a Soldier has his religious credentials, they can go to Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“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.”
Prior 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.
“I was 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 information.”
“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 help here.'”
“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 in place.”
“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.
“I have 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.”
Being a 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 Catholic Bible?'”
“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 family.”
“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 with them.”
“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.”
“If a 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 you use.”
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 spiritual question.”
“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 powerful.”
By Steve Larson, Kansas Adjutant General's Public Affairs Office
Provided through DVIDS
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