by Mark Ellingson
The church I served for 27 years was settled in the midst of the country, surrounded by trees, crops and wildlife. I always lived in the parsonage next door. About a mile away was our ballpark where softball teams came to play the church ball club sometimes with a deer watching from behind the left field fence.
Military families from the nearby air force base found this setting inviting. We would usually have some Air Force folks who would find a rural home or farmstead to rent or buy instead of living on base.
We learned some things about the military personnel who came among us. For one thing they would improve the homes in which they lived. Places which had been vacant for years would be mowed and painted and cleaned. The whole community looked better.
As an established church of generally German background we had learned to accept the occasional Norwegian (like me as the pastor). Our military families brought different backgrounds and travel experiences which enriched, challenged and interested everyone.
Many of the families discovered our church, attended and became active. They were great to have in church for they offered something often in short supply: initiative. If we had something which needed doing I could expect a volunteer from among my military members or their families. They were used to getting things done and seemed to thrive on completing a project. I remember when our church council talked about a new church sign to point the way to the church. Within a week one of my military men, one soon to be transferred, had the sign built and paid for.
I enjoyed many times of working with my air force friends and fellowshipping at their homes. But I also learned some of the unique stresses they faced.
Deployment was one stress. The military folks would tell about the places they visited and show souvenirs they had collected. But sometimes they would also share about the challenge of being apart from family and, perhaps even more difficult, coming back together after months of learning to do things on their own.
Military living had other stresses, including issues of life and death. They had unique expectations and were looked at differently by civilians. As I spent time with my military families I learned some things which helped them.
Participation in a group. I’ve already noted the value these families had for our church. But a group – church or other – which valued the contributions of military families helped those families deal with the other stresses. The families which sought us, or another group, were the better for us. As were we.
Staying connected during deployments. When someone from our church was deployed we tried to stay connected. Sometimes it was a care package or just letters. If those letters and contact came from genuine caring they made a difference. And we also made efforts to affirm and support the family who stayed behind.
A real welcome (or welcome back). Our middle-sized country church enjoyed having military families and welcomed them into the fellowship. When someone returned after deployment we also invited them to tell their stories and our people would turn out to see pictures and ask questions.
Communication Skills for re-introduction after deployment. Perhaps the greatest challenge for deployed military is coming home and putting the family back together. Both the deployed and those left behind have learned to get along apart. How do they work that out?
1. Patience in getting back together. Perhaps some families just “picked up” right where they were before the deployment. But, more often, the family had to take time to get to know one another again. The things the family learned to do weren’t immediately unlearned. So that took …
2. Listening. Actually taking time to listen to one another is a skill everyone could work on, but all the more here. Listening was the best thing the church could do for everyone involved and a needed skill when the family is coming back together. While listening it was important to be …
3. Acknowledging Changes. Some changes are obvious: the baby started to walk while dad was gone, the teenager grew three inches, the spouse grew out her hair. Other changes are less obvious having to do with new experiences the family had separately. Sometimes those experiences change a person. Such changes need to acknowledged and worked through. A military wife I knew learned to be very independent while her husband was gone and didn’t want to give back some of the things she’d begun to do on her own. The couple needed to work that through. They weren’t successful. Others, by listening with patience, created a stronger relationship.
In looking back at our relationships with military families, I recognize the thing we did right was to include them. Inclusion means more than stopping by to invite them to church, though invitation is important. A person feels included when they are welcomed to bring in their uniqueness to the group. We welcomed the unique skills, background and experiences of our military families and only hope they learned as much from being part of our church family as we learned from them.
Mark Ellingson spent 27 years as the pastor of the rural Holmes United Methodist Church as well as helping out at rural Lutheran Churches. In 2010 he became a Chaplain working with Hospice Care and then, in 2014, became Manager of Pastoral Services at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, ND. Mark has worked extensively with resilience especially in the context of disaster and trauma. He became a Board Certified Chaplain in 2013, fills in on Sundays at various small churches and continues to enjoy playing ball with the Holmes Softball Club. He is married to Betty, a Speech Pathologist in the schools and has five grown children and two grandsons.