Ministering to Military Families
Plenty of guides to military ministry advise churches to do things like pray for the troops from the pulpit on Sunday, post pictures of deployed service members on a bulletin board, and extend special counseling to soldiers and their spouses. While these are good ideas, reaching out to military families doesn't require tacking on extra Armed Forces-specific ministry tasks, but focusing on the essential roles of the church: to serve as a spiritual home and gospel-centered community.
Military families move, on average, every two to three years. Our country's 700,000 military wives often live far from their friends and relatives, plus they spend days, weeks, and months away from their husbands, who get sent off for training or deployments. This lifestyle aches with the strain of distance and loneliness. For these families—ones like mine—the church offers a resting place for the sojourner, comfort for the weary, and a home for those seeking belonging. The church serves military families by simply being the church.
Maybe you already know of military families in your community. Or, maybe this Memorial Day you notice a yellow ribbon pinned to someone's shirt or a service flag hung in the window of a house on your street. Here are five relatively straightforward and fundamentally Christian disciplines the church has to offer them:
Unhesitant hospitality. Military folks get used to being the new ones in town … over and over again. Make them feel welcome. Give them the sense that church isn't somewhere that you have to earn your place, but where you're accepted as part of the community of believers from day one. Sit with them during Sunday services, invite them to the neighborhood barbeque, and don't hesitate to offer (without pressure) further opportunities to be a part of church and family life. You may not consider yourselves especially close, but don't let that stop you. Especially during deployments, wives may not have other friends or family to rely on for company. Check if they have a place to go for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and other holidays. Don't assume someone else is reaching out to them. Keep the invites coming.
Service and love. Christians have a heart for recognizing and meeting the needs in their own communities. They have the chance to profoundly bless military families in their midst with relatively small acts of service. The average military wife is younger than 35 and has two kids under the age of 5. A friend of mine, who fits that demographic, describes herself going into "single mom mode" when her husband is away. Like many military wives, she could use some help, but she won't come out and ask for it. Instead of saying, "Tell me if you need anything," be there to recognize a family's needs and make specific offers. Wives often appreciate help with yard work (mowing the grass, cleaning gutters), and childcare (occasional babysitting while she runs errands or takes a night off). To support the soldiers overseas, send a care package (Tip: They often have enough toothpaste and deodorant. Skip the toiletries and send yummy baked goods along with an encouraging note).
Meaningful conversation. God created us for community, so being alone can be decidedly bad for us and for our spiritual growth (Prov. 18:1). Check in with military wives, even if that means calling, texting, and stopping by in between Sundays. Just saying hi and asking how a deployed loved one is doing can be a meaningful way to connect. Don't worry that bringing him up could upset us. Military wives are constantly thinking of our husbands when they are away; it's actually nice to hear that other people are thinking of them, too. Don't pry for too many details, though. We're not the ones to explain and defend every military policy. No, he can't come home for Christmas. No, I can't Skype with him whenever I want. No, I don't know what day he will be home. Oh, and we're happy to talk about other things, too.
Prayer. Pray for our military. In the past decade, more than 2 million American service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. With the troop withdrawal, it's easy for most of us to assume this war is over. That is, unless it's your husband, your sister, or your neighbor who's headed out for another tour of duty. Pray for healing, rehabilitation, and jobs for those who have returned; pray for strong leadership, success, and safety for those who continue to fight. Pray for their salvation, that even the combat zone can be fertile ground for the gospel.
Prayer for their families. While military families get used to the lifestyle over the years, that doesn't mean things get easier. For the hundreds of thousands of spouses and children left at home, the feeling of worrying about and desperately missing someone you love doesn't let up, it just returns as more familiar. Military wives don't want you to pity us, but we do want you to pray for us. Pray specifically during periods of transition—deployments, homecomings, moves, new jobs, new babies, etc.—that the family is able to adjust in a healthy way. Pray for our marriages. Pray that God fill the places of our hearts that feel empty, that we seek Him above all else.
Written by Kate Shellnutt
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