They can be skittish, untrusting, and resistant to offers of help, as well as sometimes stubborn and skeptical. They are the veterans of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of them are hurting and broken. Some of them may be members of your congregation, or relatives of your congregants, and they may turn to you for help. Are you ready to minister to them?
A third of returning veterans turn to the church for help. For every veteran who is determined not to admit to a problem, another longs for a safe church home that will provide support on the journey back to wholeness.
About 2 million U.S. military personnel have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001. Many are returning to local congregations where they seek help in understanding the meaning of what happened to them in combat. They often carry wordless pictures of horrible atrocities in their minds and sometimes enormous guilt. Half of these veterans admit to diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and/or depression; others suffer from anxiety disorders, physical injuries, and ailments too numerous to list.
This generation of veterans is highly resistant to seeking mental health care due to the stigma often associated with such care in military culture. For those who are career military, seeking psychiatric care may raise questions about their fitness for command. And all those veterans who go home to small towns and rural areas where everyone knows everyone else’s business fear that their friends, neighbors, and even family members will shun them when word gets out that they are seeing a “shrink.”
Instead, a third of returning veterans turn to the church for help. For every veteran who is determined not to admit to a problem, another longs for a safe church home that will provide support on the journey back to wholeness. If you have veterans in your congregation, you probably have their spouses, children, and perhaps even their parents as well, all of whom may also need help.
While resources for ministering to veterans are slow to develop, the need won’t wait. These suggestions, based on my own experience working with veterans, may prove helpful:
Patience and persistence. It takes time to develop the trust of veterans. It can be frustrating to have to prove yourself, but you must. If veterans trust anyone, it will be their pastors; but even you must earn that trust, step by patient step.
Likeminded listeners. Veterans really need to talk. They prefer talking with other veterans because they don’t have to explain so much, and their confessions are accepted, affirmed, and recognized. A small Bible study group made up entirely of veterans can be a good place to start. It’s ok to include veterans of previous conflicts. Vietnam veterans have had to live with their combat memories for a long time; their presence and wisdom may comfort the more recently deployed.
Thoughtful Bible study. Take care with the scriptures that you present and how you present them. The stories from ancient Israel’s Babylonian Exile are relevant. Be careful how you handle “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and, especially, “Put on the whole armor of God,” which may have been interpreted to them as justifying war. Consider offering a weekend retreat of Bible study instead of a weekly format. When a week goes by between sessions, you may have to start all over again helping participants get comfortable enough to talk, and it’s more likely they will drop out after a session or two. In a retreat setting, veterans may be more able to enter into the experience.
Rituals of acceptance. Every veteran with whom I have worked feels a strong need to be cleansed and purified before God, something that seems to go well beyond confession and forgiveness. Think about the possibility of offering a liturgy of forgiveness, cleansing of spirit and life, and blessing. Such a ceremony might or might not be public in the congregation, depending on the veteran’s preference.
Mental health referrals. Become aware of the mental health services available in your community, both through Veterans Affairs (VA) and other providers. You may be a wonderful pastoral counselor, but you cannot prescribe medication or treat physical injuries. Once you are able to establish a certain level of trust with veterans, they are more willing to consider the kind of care required to be more fully healed.
Every hour of pastoral counseling, every Bible study group, every moment of encouragement offered to a discouraged veteran is a tool for building a new life — one that moves through traumatic experiences toward a productive future.
Resources for Ministry with Veterans and Military Families from the Congregational Resource Guide
A recent posting by the Congregational Resource Guide surveyed a number of resources for clergy and congregations ministering to returning veterans and their families. CRG’s article, An Honorable Homecoming, highlighted these and other resources:
- How to Help Military Families as a Faith-Based Community, a brochure published by the Purdue University Military Family Research Institute
- Welcome Them Home — Help Them Heal: Pastoral Care and Ministry with Service Members Returning from War, co-authored by John Sippola, Amy Blumenshine, Donald A. Tubesing, and Valerie Yancey
- The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (Guilford Family Therapy) by Michael P. Nichols
- Point Man International Ministries. Since 1984, this group has connected veterans with one another in local community support groups known as “outposts” – described as places for veterans to talk, share, and listen to others who have walked in their shoes.
- Podcast with Amy Blumenshine, co-author of Welcome Them Home – Help Them Heal. CR Radio makes available this interview regarding the important role congregations play in helping veterans adjust to life back in the states, and the distinctive challenges that veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars face following discharge. CR Radio is produced by the Congregational Resource Guide and the Alban Institute.
- The Transformative Power of Listening by Mary Clark Moschella
- Small Churches as Healthy Family Systems by Lewis A. Parks