By Carl Stagner
Meeting needs is just something churches do. You don’t have to go far to find a kid-friendly church or a church with options for married couples or senior citizens. It’s common that you’ll find a college-friendly church located near a college campus. For the recovering alcoholic, there’s Celebrate Recovery. For the divorcee, there’s DivorceCare. Support groups exist among churches for numerous other challenges people face. But for those dealing with the trauma of war, help can be hard to find. And yet, veterans sit in our pews from week to week, often silently navigating the horrors of combat dating back only a few months—or several decades. Retired Church of God pastor Colonel Fred Dowden is on a mission to help churches become veteran-friendly. As you’ll discover, being a veteran-friendly church is far more than acknowledging the “veterans in our midst” and singing “God Bless America.”
Colonel Dowden has seen, heard, and experienced things he would just as soon forget. The Vietnam War may have ended in 1975, but that did not mean his battles had come to an end. Yet, as Dowden testifies, solace for the soldier is available from the Prince of Peace. “There is a need that only the power of the gospel can meet,” Dowden explains. “For such a time as this, the church is called to help combat veterans and their families impacted emotionally, physically, and spiritually by war, to heal and renew their strength so they can mount up ‘on wings like eagles’ and fly (Isaiah 40:29–31). Pastors and churches are needed to show a heart of compassion to our nation’s military and become bridges to healing.”
There are many great organizations that specialize in care and support for veterans. Too often, however, such care and support provides temporary relief to systemic issues Jesus alone can heal. As the physical expression of the Lord in the community, Colonel Dowden explains that the church must be Jesus to our veterans. “Today’s military and their families greatly need affirmation, love, encouragement, opportunities for service, and the warm, accepting community that the church uniquely offers,” he explains. “Many times, the church does not extend compassion because they are simply not sensitized to these unique needs of returning warriors who have seen so much and sacrificed so much for our nation.”
Of course, pastors and churches have the best intentions. They’re motivated by God’s love and a desire to see broken people restored by Christ. But moral injury and PTSD are complex issues that can throw believers off guard. Training is the first step. Colonel Dowden is a minister who has experienced combat trauma himself, and has dedicated his retired years to appropriately equipping churches and leaders in this area.
“Studies show that veterans are more likely to go to a pastor than Veterans Affairs,” he explains. “They don’t always feel like the VA really cares for them—that they’re only a patient. They sense that a pastor will look at them as a person.” The question is, are we pastors ready to live up to their expectations?
For Colonel Dowden, the issue comes down to hope and healing from trauma, whether it’s combat, child abuse, assault, or rape. Church leaders don’t learn how to deal with this stuff in seminary. But a little training can go a long way. There’s hope in community. There’s hope after combat injury. Dowden, who served in the military for thirty-three years, was injured in Vietnam. In 2004, he was diagnosed with a mild case of PTSD. He explains that it was more of a moral injury issue. Often soldiers are inflicted with moral injury when the government gives the kill command, but the Scriptures say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Reasoning and arguments don’t help, but the love of a local congregation can.
Dowden, who led a workshop on this topic at Church of God Convention 2017 in Wichita, Kansas, is available to come and lead a free training, complete with a wealth of helpful resources, at your church or state/district assembly meeting. One of the first steps he recommends is to conduct an informal survey to determine who the veterans are in your church. Find out if one veteran would be willing to take a training course with you. By the way, did you know the VA will send a chaplain to do a day of training free of charge for pastors? It’s true. Additionally, the VA website offers clergy training to deal with PTSD and mental health concerns. In light of Veterans Day (November 11, 2017), but really for any day of the year, Dowden wants to share personally with you more practical steps to become a veteran-friendly church.
“Every church in America is touched in some way by someone that is serving or has served in the military,” Dowden explains. “There are military members, past and present, in our congregations and communities, suffering from the unhealed wounds of war, or have family members who are. Jesus came and took twelve individuals through ‘basic training.’ Then after the resurrection was advanced infantry training. When he left, he said now it’s your job. Go and do!”
To learn more and to take the next step in becoming a veteran-friendly church, contact Colonel Dowden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864-357-5186.
Don’t forget to honor our chaplains during Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month! Learn more about Chaplain Ministries of the Church of God at www.jesusisthesubject.org/chaplain-ministries.