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Partners in sea-going ministry:

Lay leaders in the military

Location: Western Atlantic off East Coast of United States
Date: Fall 2015
Time: 2155 hours.

Good evening Crew, this is Chief Warrant Officer Smith with your evening prayer.The Bible says in Proverbs that,“Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
Let’s pray. Dear Lord, not only do you want us to speak well to each other, you make it a part of our health. I pray that everyone on the ship enters tomorrow with a kind word for someone else in the crew.
Good night, Hue City.

I released the push-to-talk button on the loudspeaker microphone and handed it back to the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch. Making my way across the darkened pilothouse, I exited and walked through a silent ship back to my stateroom. It is a walk I have made many times in 20 years of service. From the late 1990s, when I was a Petty Officer 3rd Class on the USS Mobile Bay (CG 53), to my current posting on the USS Hue City (CG 66) as a Chief Warrant Officer, I have given many prayers. These prayers range from retirement and commissioning ceremonies, to burials at sea, to evening prayers and Protestant lay services. Praying is one of the most crucial aspects of my job as a lay leader.

What does a military lay leader do?
Praying is certainly one of the biggest jobs of a lay leader, but it isn’t all they do. Following is a short list of the work accomplished by lay leaders, especially when a chaplain is not available:

Teach: What a lay leader teaches on Sundays depends largely on their level of training and experience. For those who lack formal training, groups like the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ and so on, help military members teach others through the use of printed and electronic materials.

Pray: As mentioned before, lay leaders pray over many situations in the military. Praying at a ceremony or giving the evening prayer allows a lay leader to become a point of contact for the crew.

Witness: I have had several conversations lately wherein a well-meaning Christian suggests that I’m not allowed to share my faith in the military. This couldn’t be further from the truth! While it must always be done with tact and love, and with an eye toward a proper place and time, lay leaders can and do share their faith.

These three events constitute the bulk of the services lay leaders in the military provide in the absence of chaplains.

How does the partnership work?
Lay leaders are not chaplains. The job a “Chaps” does, particularly in the field of counseling, is above the realm of the average lay leader. While they do provide spiritual direction in a chaplain’s absence, lay leaders are in their element when they are acting as complements to chaplains.

I am grateful that I’ve had good relationships with several chaplains over my career. A chaplain named L.T. Wallace introduced me to military ministry by asking me to help him on Sundays when I had duty and by turning over a service to me on Sundays underway. Like any good leader, he was not threatened by me and knew that I could complement him by more efficiently reaching the enlisted community, as I was a Petty Officer at the time.

Another chaplain, Captain Gibson, baptized me into the ministry based on the work I was doing with L.T. Wallace and some preaching I did for him in Yokosuka, a US Navy base in Japan. Because of that event on May 31, 1998, I embarked on a ministry that continues to this day.

My story isn’t found in every military ministry setting of course, but it is common enough. The partnership works at a level where the chaplain handles spiritual direction, teaching, and counseling (among other things) when on board while the lay leader helps as a reader, sets up the service area, and reaches out to his or her fellow service members. When the chaplain is not available or does not fit the particular faith group, the lay leader also teaches.

Prayer requests
Jesus said that “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19). At the core of every lay leader’s needs is this sort of prayer on his or her behalf. Please consider praying for the following three issues as you pray for lay leaders:

A willing partner: Effectiveness in any ministry is based largely the people it comprises. On ships, squadrons and battalions, the partnership between lay leaders and chaplains will be most effective when both are willing to play their role.

A strong mentor: My first two mentors in lay ministry were chaplains who valued the work lay leaders provide. Were it not for them, I wouldn’t be the lay leader I am today. We need chaplains who are also willing to disciple young men and women in ministry and lay leaders eager to be mentored.

A bold heart: The Bible tells us that, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news (Rom. 10:15)!” Lay leaders must be bold enough to tell their fellow service personnel about Jesus without being so overbearing that they turn the person off Christ.

In the absence of seminary-trained ministry leaders, lay leaders provide spiritual direction for members of a military unit. In essence, they are pastors. Most lack formal seminary training, but they more than make up for it in dedication to the cause of the Kingdom and a willingness to learn as they go. By learning about their work as ministers and praying on their behalf, you join them in serving the Father. 

Did you know?

  • There are no official metrics military-wide on how many lay leaders there are at a specific time but it is standard practice for operational commands to have one Protestant and one Roman Catholic lay leader. A lay leader appointment is not to exceed one year, but can be renewed from year to year as needed.
  • There are approximately 800 chaplains in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps, which serves all of the sea services (USN, USMC, USCG and USMM).
  • Chaplains and the Religious Ministry Team (which includes lay leaders) serve an entire command, which could be a few hundred or several thousand, such as a battalion or an aircraft carrier.
  • There are 274 ships in inventory with approximately 325,000 personnel on ships, in aircraft squadrons and ashore.

  • Dan Smith is a career U.S. Navy Sailor, a husband to Alicia, a father to Timothy, Samantha and Hannah, a graduate of the MA in Religion program at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and a writer. He blogs at navychristian.org and tweets @navychristian.

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