A column provided in collaboration with the Center for Healthy Churches (chchurches.org)

Faith communities as first responders

We stand at the door of one of the most tremendous opportunities in the life of the church since post 9/11: to have a thriving, effective ministry for our veterans and current military members and their families.

According to research, from Sept. 11, 2001 until 2016 we had in the combined wars of Iraq and Afghanistan 3,185,000 persons serving in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines including active duty, reservists and the National Guard. If we include all veterans and active members who served in the first Gulf War to now, it would exceed 6.5 million service members.

This long-term conflict has been waged for the first time by an all-volunteer force, and the reserve component has been deployed at its highest level in 50 years.

Due to force reduction by the down-sizing of active and reserve components and the return of reservists from recent mobilizations, military persons and their families are flooding back into our communities. One of the places veterans and their families are seeking out is the church.

However, less than one percent of our society is directly impacted by those with military service. This small population percentage leaves our understanding, knowledge and empathy limited to a very small number of citizens.

According to the Pew Research Center, which studied war and sacrifice, the understanding of civilians is broken down into three mindsets:

  •  91 percent felt proud of soldiers serving our country.
  •  76 percent of citizens thanked soldiers for their service to our country.
  •  58 percent did something to help soldiers and veterans and their families.

On any given Sunday morning, we would likely find more persons in the pews without knowledge of military culture than persons who are aware. Yet the Pew Research Center indicates that military culture members seek community involvement, a sense of belonging, volunteerism and spiritual renewal.

The church is a quiet giant that needs to be aroused and educated on how it can forge a meaningful and significant ongoing ministry to military members and their families.

We have a moral obligation to help churches become the “best lifesaving stations” for our warriors who have served during the longest continued wars in modern history. One writer suggests the church can be the “best preventive medicine” for wellness and healing for our 6.5 million veterans and their families.

National surveys indicate that persons in crises, civilian or military, are more comfortable talking with clergy or chaplains than with mental health professionals. Therefore, churches and clergy need to be better equipped to meet the needs of our military members.

The four most common injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), injuries from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Mild-Traumatic Brain Disorder (m-BTI) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

However, there is another injury related to these wars that is not clinical or medical in nature. It is called “Moral Injury,” defined as:

  •  Psychological damage service members face when their actions in battle contradict their moral beliefs
  •  Violation of individuals’ moral beliefs that has their actions deemed as unfit
  •  When your brain tells you to do what your heart tells you is wrong.

Moral injury is a spiritual injury or trauma.
The church can provide the following for our military service people:

  •  A safe haven — a place of acceptance and support
  •  Listening — a place for telling their stories
  •  Community — a place of tolerance, forgiveness and compassion
  •  Acceptance — a place where healing takes place and spirits are renewed

Churches must be trained, kept informed and equipped for this unique ministry because the church is often the “first responders.” NFJ

willbarnesBy Will Barnes

Will G. Barnes of Clemmons, N.C., is a retired Army chaplain and a marriage and family therapist who taught at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. For information on training your congregation to be first responders, contact him at drwillgbarnes1@gmail.com or (336) 970-0509.