Chaplains: Missionaries to the United States

Earl W. Vanderhoff

The work of a military chaplain closely resembles the ministry of a missionary. The military environment is much like a foreign culture. The chaplain and his family must “learn the soldier’s language” and adjust to the short-term relationships of this mobile lifestyle, even as they seek to redeem the time for the sake of the gospel.

A chaplain must be ordained and endorsed by his particular denomination to the military. A chaplain ministers in the Army according to the beliefs and doctrines of his ordaining church. He preaches and counsels according to his own conscience without restraint from the military. However, part of a chaplain’s job is to provide opportunity for each soldier to enjoy the freedom to practice his own religion, whatever that may be.

After serving in the Army Reserves for eleven years, I left our Orthodox Presbyterian church in Bothell, Washington, to spend a year in Bosnia on active duty. During this tour, the Lord confirmed my love for the chaplain’s ministry. In December 1998, my wife and two youngest children moved with me to Fort Rucker, Alabama. Fort Rucker is responsible for training all helicopter pilots in the Armed Forces. I am assigned there as a battalion chaplain in the 1-210th Aviation Regiment. My immediate mission is to the 1,100 soldiers (and their families) in my battalion.

Desiring to maintain a presence and an influence with the troops, I am normally involved in all training exercises. This week I offered a worship service for one of our companies training out in the field. I am normally out of bed by 4:45 a.m. and have about two hours of physical training before reporting to my office at 8:00 a.m. I run anywhere from ten to thirty miles per week and maintain a fitness level in push-ups and sit-ups that keeps me in the top fitness category.

As the battalion chaplain, I attend all official ceremonies and am usually asked to give the invocation. I average ten counseling cases per week. This provides opportunities to present the gospel to people. Some have asked me into their homes for regular Bible study. Three families who came for counseling have begun worshiping at the Presbyterian church (PCA) where my family attends.

I lead a Bible study on Wednesday evenings in the barracks with single soldiers. I helped get a Bible study started on Thursday evenings and soon will start one on Tuesday evenings. I am assigned to pastor one of the Protestant congregations that meet in the Post Chapel at 8:00 a.m. on Sundays.

Along with preaching responsibilities, I am involved in many activities at this chapel, from making the bulletins to organizing revival services. On Sunday nights, I am in charge of the junior and senior high school youth group. I have been presenting an R. C. Sproul tape series to these kids and will be taking them on a weekend retreat next month.

When our Lord gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28:1820, he declared that the gospel was to be spread throughout the whole world. Each of his true children is one of his ambassadors. As an Army chaplain, I have the privilege of being a missionary to the people to whom God has sent me. Daily trusting the Holy Spirit to guide and empower me to evangelize, I have providential opportunities with many people.

With a cross on my uniform, I am easily recognized as a chaplain. People often seem to expect me to speak with them about spiritual matters. I endeavor to present the whole counsel of the Word whenever I minister. This means that I am true to my ordination vows and trust the Lord to reform the non-Reformed by teaching the doctrines of our Westminster Standards. “Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men’” (Matt. 4:19 NASB).

Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2000.