The Life and ministry of an Air Force Chaplain

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I love ministry. I love learning about other ministries and how the Lord uses them for His glory. I have the privilege of knowing a few military chaplains. It has been encouraging to see the way the Lord uses these men for His name. I pray this interview exposes some of their work and encourages you to pray for them. The following interview is with Air Force Major Joshua Stoley. I am extremely thankful for Major Stoley, especially his love for our Lord and His bride, the church. Please join me in learning about and praying for him and others who serve in this role.

Question 1: Introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Joshua Stoley, I am an Active Duty chaplain in the Air Force, currently stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. I’ve been married for almost 16 years to my wife Janet, and we have five children, Elisa – 14, Caleb – 13, Katelyn 11, Lukas – 4, and Gemma 10 months. I’ve been in the Air Force just about a month less than I have been married, first commissioning in February of 2003. I began my career as a Chaplain Candidate, a program designed to train seminary students to become active, reserve or guard chaplains. When I graduated seminary in 2006, I was reappointed as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, where I served for three years. While in the Reserves, I also severed as an Institutional Chaplain with the Michigan Department of Corrections, where I was responsible for providing for the 1stAmendment rights of 1,100 inmates.

In January 2009 I deployed with the Reserves to Northern Iraq, and while there I was selected for Active Duty service. A few months after returning from Iraq I resigned my civilian position at the prison and moved to my first duty station at Edwards Air Force Base in California where were remained for four years. Following Edwards, we were transferred to Las Vegas were we served another four-year tour before our current assignment in Little Rock.

As a chaplain, I am endorsed and credentialed by the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA). What I appreciate about ARBCA is that they view chaplains not as rogue ministers off on their own, but as sent missionaries to the military. More precisely, my family and I retain membership with our sending church, Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Palmdale, California. While stationed in California, we joined GRBC to keep a connection with the local church. I would preach and teach on base for Sunday School and Lord’s Day worship, and then in the evenings, we would attend GRBC in town. This allowed us to both serve and to be served – to feed and be fed. Equally, it keeps the ministry we do in the military rightly connected to the local church, the Bride of Christ.

Question 2: Describe the major responsibilities chaplains are commissioned to do?

The chaplain corps exists in our Armed Forces to protect the 1stAmendment rights of military members. Every American citizen has a constitutional right to the free practice and free exercise of their respective religions. Because of this, Congress must provide for the religious needs of military members serving across the globe. We provide for those Constitutional rights by conducting religious services and religious education, providing spiritual care to our members, and advising military leaders on all matters pertaining to religion, spirituality, ethics, morale, and morality. In particular, Chaplains lead religious services/worship services according to the manner and forms of the church of which he is a Member (Title 10, United States Code, Section 6031 (a)).

Question 3: Can you please explain the significance and role of your commissioning organization? And how does it relates and protects the ministry?

Often times when people hear of or learn about the military chaplaincy, they immediately wonder how the government can employ chaplains. They ask, “Isn’t the Chaplain Corps a violation of the establishment clause?” The existence of the service Chaplain Corps has even been challenged in court on these grounds. What the courts continue to uphold is the truth, as mentioned above, that Congress has an obligation to provide for the religious rights of military members. To preserve the integrity of the Establishment Clause, the military relies on recognized ecclesiastical endorsers to train, ordain, and credential its chaplains. Only chaplains who are thoroughly vetted by their respective religious institutions (for me ARBCA) are qualified to serve in the military.  In fact, our commission as officers is contingent on our endorsement such that if we ever lose our credentialing, we equally lose our commission.

What this means practically is that chaplains are “dual-hatted,” as we often say. Chaplains are clergy and officers. As pastors, we are obligated to live, preach, and teach in accordance with the tenants of our respective churches. With that, the government cannot compel chaplains to perform duties that violate the tenants of our faith. I cannot be made to participate in a service or rite that goes against the teachings of my sending church. Here, chaplains have certain protections. I can preach, teach, marry, and bury in a way that faithfully represents my faith as a Christian and am never required to do anything that violates that.

Question 4: What major hurdles and problems do you deal with?

The same difficulties we face in military ministry are, in many ways, the same challenges any pastor or missionary faces. Most of what I see are families who are struggling and need help with their relationships. I see everything from learning to communicate, to managing finances, to learning what it means to be a godly husband and wife.

Also, many of our young people struggle with the “big questions” that all of us did in our youth. They are looking for meaning and purpose in life. They struggle with the evils and injustices they see in the world. Here, I have the great privilege of sharing a biblical worldview with them.

Pastorally, the military life can be straining on families. Because we move so often, military families cannot sink roots in a local church and grow there for years. Instead, they might only be with a local body for a year or two before they move. Because of this, I emphasize very strongly the need for husbands to be strong leaders, wives to be women of deep faith, and children to be actively discipled.

Question 5: What misconceptions do people have about chaplain ministry?

The two biggest misconceptions I hear about chaplains and our ministry are closely related. First, people often think that a Chaplain must be a religious jack of all trades, as it were. What I mean is that people often feel that we must actively preach and teach all faiths equally. This just is not true. As a military chaplain, I indeed must equally protect the religious rights and freedoms of all military members. In that, I equally advocate for everyone’s faith regardless of creed. However, that does not mean that I agree with, believe, or teach all religions. Supporting someone’s Constitutional right is simply not the same as preaching a false gospel.

Related to that, chaplains are often viewed as compromisers. Pretty regularly I hear from faithful Christians that they just assume that chaplains, because of the nature of our ministry, are sellouts, compromisers and false teachers. This is equally untrue.  To be fair, there are those who are, from a biblical perspective, false teachers or even unbelievers. But we see this in pulpits across the nation too. Our pulpits are filled with people who teach and preach a false ‘ear-tickling’ gospel, that is really no gospel at all. This does happen in the chaplaincy too. However, I promise that there are also faithful, solid, committed, and gifted men who serve as chaplains. More still, there are those who earnest view what they do as missional work. We are here as missionaries from our church sent to carry out the Great Commission by making disciples of Jesus Christ, even in the military.

Question 6: How can we pray, encourage, and support chaplain ministries?

Pray first that God would continue to raise up and send faithful Christian to serve in this unique ministry. Pray that the gospel would go out and that lives would be saved. Pray for our families: our wives wear the dual hat as well of being both pastor’s wives and military spouses. Our children likewise are “PK’s” and “military brats.” Pray for the men and women we serve. Encourage us to preach and teach and evangelize without compromise. Support us by recognizing that, while our calling may be different from yours, we are co-laborers for the cause of Christ.

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Jason Vaughn

About Jason Vaughn

Jason is a graduate of the Master's Seminary and the pastor of Cornerstone Las Vegas, a Grace Advance church plant. He loves Christ, his wife Kyla, sometimes his kids :), the church, missions, people, and coffee. You can also follow him on his personal blog at shepherdthesheep.com.