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Ministering to Military Families

Truth In Love 369

How do we give compassionate and biblical counsel to the unique situations and struggles of military families?

Jun 27, 2022

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I am joined with Aurelia Smith. She has been married to Nate, her former military husband for 20 years. She’s written a book called Ministering to Military Women. She’s been an ACBC member since 2010. She also did an undergraduate degree at the Air Force Academy and an MABC at The Master’s University. And it’s always fun for me to talk to Aurelia, particularly about issues in the military and ways to ACBC sort of exploring how we can do a better job at ministering to those who are associated with the military and who serve in the military. It’s always fun to do that.

I want to ask you to start off with this question. Just to ask you, why is this issue? Maybe I alluded to some of that in the bio. But why is this issue so close to your heart? Maybe you can go into a little bit of detail about that. 

Aurelia Smith: Absolutely. Well, you know, my father was in the military so I was actually born into the military context, and then as you mentioned, I went to the Air Force Academy, an undergrad and served in the military as an intelligence officer for a little over five years and that’s actually where I met my husband, Nate, who served for 28 years who pretty much just got out of the military at the end of 2019. And so, you know, as a veteran married to another military member and our entire existence because my husband was also born into that context as well. His dad was in the military. It’s really a community in a context in which we have loved to serve, continue to serve and they just are close to our hearts for that reason. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I mean this has been a part of your life and now as a biblical counselor, help us as a broader community as biblical counselors, help us to understand why should biblical counselors really equip ourselves to counsel those who are in the military, particularly families in the military? And do you think this is still important? Even though they might not be at some sort of military installation or even if we don’t live near a military base or something like that? 

Aurelia Smith: Right. So we’ve got an opportunity as counselors to bring hope and help to some incredibly hard and dark circumstances. And while there are a lot of resources that aim to help military members and their families, most are secular and psychologized. The military is doing the best it can, but we as God’s people have a firm foundation and a sure hope to offer people in the middle of some really hard things. So it’s important to equip yourself to minister to the military. So your counseling instruction and implementation are hindered by an inaccurate understanding of the context in which the person is operating. For instance, when we’re talking about marital counseling, we love to have both husband and wife present. But, you know, understand that if you’re talking about improving communication between spouses and one is deployed, some of the ways that you do that homework is going to be very, very different because of those realities.

Also, even if you don’t live near a military installation, you more than likely know someone who’s related to a military member. So, a veteran’s parent, grandparent, sibling or friend. Although the context is unique, the core heart problems, that drive temptations and sins are the same for all people. I’d also say that several missionaries have stated that many of the blessings and challenges that military members face are sometimes similar to them as well. So yeah, all kinds of reasons, and whether you’re near an installation or not, would be really wise to equip yourself. 

Dale Johnson: Now, I want to talk a little bit more deeply about some of those blessings and challenges. But part of what you’re describing is just it takes us doing good data gathering work to understand what this person’s life is really like. And then, as you mentioned, is so important to understand that context. And then also, when we’re giving homework, we’re giving ways that a person can put on something that God tells them to put on. We’ve got to think about their context if their spouse is deployed. I mean we have to come up with creative ways that they can employ those in a good way.

I want to go back to the blessings and challenges, you mentioned that. What are some of those blessings and challenges? Maybe you can contrast that for us for military families. Some of the challenges that they faced, the blessings that they experienced being a military family, and why might these be important for our biblical counselors to know about.

Aurelia Smith: Right. I love to talk about the blessings in particular because some of us are familiar through mass media or, you know, things that we’ve heard or understand about some of the challenges. But I love to start with the blessings because a lot of times when someone is in the midst of the trenches of dealing with these hardships, they can forget all the magnificent ways in which God is working and blessing them. And so, in the book, I talk about several blessings, one is a chance to mirror Christ in sacrificial service. The military really gives us multiple opportunities to do that to sacrifice ourselves, our times, our wants, our desires, even where we live for others.

The second would be a chance to tangibly participate in the universal church. It’s been so beautiful over the years as we live Stateside and abroad to meet up with believers that I never would have had an opportunity to meet, but because of the fact that we were in the military. And so, one day we’ll all to worship together, but I did a sweet taste foretaste of that, as we move around the world in the military. Another is a chance to grow in God-dependence. You will quickly come to the end of yourself in this context. The problems are too big and what’s being asked of you is really hard. And so, it’s a great opportunity to grow in God dependence, rather than independence.

Another is a chance to be a non-traditional missionary of the Gospel to the nations, we know that it isn’t the military who’s in control of where we’re going. The Bible is very clear in Acts 17, where Paul talks about how it is, God, who determines the times and places in which we all live. And so, if someone is in the military context, it’s not the military that is sending them, that’s just the means. It’s our sovereign God who’s doing so, and so there’s someone on that block or in that country or in that job, where He’s sending you, where He wants you to attest to His goodness and to be faithful to the gospel.

Another is a chance to live out spiritual realities. This one sort of goes into some detail, but it is just about the authority, submission, and roles and responsibilities that are really important in the military that I feel like sometimes aren’t in anywhere else outside of the church. That’s really a huge blessing for Christians who are in the military to be thinking about these things and to have them in front of them on a daily basis.

The last one is a chance to orient their life heavenward. This is not my home and so people in the military get reminded of that every year to three years that you know, this isn’t my home, I’m going to be packing up and I’m going to be moving. Heaven is my home, not here, and we get tangible reminders of that all the time. And then, challenges that I think are really important for biblical counselors to think about is the search and discovery of a biblical church challenge because truly biblical counseling is going to happen in the context of the church. But we really have to be thinking about this as counselors. If a military family comes in to us, well, they haven’t necessarily had the privilege of being able to live out their Christian life in one location or two locations. So it’s really huge to understand that.

Another is the marriage strain challenge, which makes a lot of sense. The absence of extended family challenge, when a military family needs help, they’re usually far away from their family members and so helping the church to understand that really, we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus to these folks. The anonymity and isolation challenge, and that just refers to the fact that when a military family first shows up at your church, you don’t have their history, you don’t know anything about them. And so for a season, they’re anonymous and it takes a great deal of work and effort to seek to build into and invest into those relationships. And then another is the change in the wounded warrior challenge. A lot of times as a result of wars, people are coming back very, very different than when they left physically. And then, lastly is the ever-present danger challenge, when you or your loved one is constantly in harm’s way. There are things that you have to deal with maybe in a different way than other civilians.

Dale Johnson: Those are very helpful, and I want to encourage you guys, as our members and listeners that especially when you’re close to a military installation and you’re seeing a lot of military families, be cognizant of these things, go back and listen to some of the things that Aurelia just mentioned, and really brainstorm, strategize about ways that the church can minister to the families and can try even cut through that anonymity them coming to your church as quickly as possible, just to get to know them. I mean you talk about the challenges. Many of those challenges are very real, but there are also opportunities for the church to minister well. Particularly with military families, the transient nature. Now our culture is much more transient than it used to be, but even more so in the military and finding a local church being ministered by the local church. But then being able to serve in a local church, we need to trust the people who are serving in our churches, right? And it takes time to get to know people, but I want you to just help us to brainstorm about how can local churches in particularly the biblical counseling community, practically help those who are affiliated in our armed forces, at least knowing some of these challenges that you just mentioned?

Aurelia Smith: I would say educate yourself about the military context. Something this podcast is definitely helping counselors to do, but also consider workshops, selected articles about the subject, and even 501C organizations like Mighty Oaks Warrior Program and Fallen Soldiers March, who are in the trenches on a daily basis serving this demographic in God-honoring ways.

I’d also identify families associated with the military and truly get to know them and ascertain what their needs truly are, just like what you were talking about earlier Dr. Johnson. And maybe even put to use thoughtful pre-deployment and post-deployment checklists that engage military families. So, that shepherds are aware and engage with any problems that could arise during the deployment, as well as able to assist with the needs of the spouse and children that are left behind.

Another way that we can get practically involved as churches, is those who are near installations can consider sponsoring a unit during the holidays or even engaging with installation readiness groups that assist spouses and children of deployed members. Churches and our counseling training centers near military installations should make themselves known base authorities, like chaplains and commanders. So, those in leadership are aware the tremendous resources we have to offer their population. I can’t tell you how beautiful it has been then, as we’ve moved around with whatever local church we become members of who are involved in counseling. It is a huge outreach opportunity to these installations because when chaplains know or commanders know that there is a credible resource that will care for people well, that will go above and beyond what they’re able to do. They jump at the chance and that gives us as believers, tremendous opportunities to speak into lives to transform situations.

I would also say that individual certified biblical counselors who want to help should know they can volunteer their time to be a part of a network of other certified biblical counselors with Fallen Soldiers March who provide free biblical counseling to military members and their families. And that can also be done remotely so that it doesn’t matter where you live to be able to do that. And then, I would just say extend personal invitations to your local or regional installations for any training that you are providing your congregation with biblical counseling because in doing so, you’re equipping people who will go worldwide with this vital skill and bless many beyond our borders.

Dale Johnson: I love the way that you’re helping churches to brainstorm and to think about maybe even outside of what their normal process would be. And there are so many opportunities here and I pray that you guys will take notice at opportunities to minister.

Let’s talk about this. I think one of the most critical things that sometimes we mention is because of the difficulty of the transient nature, we often don’t want to talk about, you know, difficult issues, right? But I think it’s important that we consider, I mean, you live this life, you know what it’s like, you know what it’s about. And it’s just like any thing that the Lord calls us to do their different challenges and temptations, even sins that we struggle with.

What are some of those sins and temptations? And you particularly work with women consistently, what are consistent sins or temptations that women in particular deal with in the military context?

Aurelia Smith: You know, this part of the research and the writing of this book was just so amazing to me, as over 100 women were willing to participate and talk about what they faced in this context, and although they had a lot of different choices and could write different responses. I went with the top three that they talked about, and they had to do with sinful fear, number one, that shouldn’t be a surprise in regards to this context. Number two was controlling attitudes and behavior. And number three was bitterness and resentment. And so, when you look at that, once again, this is a unique context. Yes, but those sins and temptations are not unique, right, the Scripture speaks to those. And so, those were the top three that the women were talking about. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, they’re just pressed by this lifestyle, and you see it come out more. Now, we don’t say this to profile somebody, right? Oh they’re in the military, oh they got, no, no, that’s not the point, right? The point is just to be aware of those things that these are very common sense or temptations that people deal with who are in that context, and it makes total sense that those are the places in which their life is being pressed, maybe more than many other contexts. And so, just to be aware of those things.

Now, I want to continue this because we need to get to solutions when we talk about these temptations and these sins. How do biblical and theological solutions to these problems compared to maybe what we see certainly in the secular world, or how most ladies in the military are told to deal with it from our culture? 

Aurelia Smith: Right, and this is so important because I wanted biblical counselors not only to be equipped with, you know, what are the blessings, what are the challenges, but just like you’re saying, what are the biblical and theological solutions to these problems? But I also wanted them to be aware of where a military woman or person would go for help as their first point of contact. And for many of us, that would be a primary care provider at an assignment military medical treatment facility, psychiatrists and psychologists and talk therapists, or even just self-help, right, is where people go. And so for each one of those top three problems, the book talks about the biblical and theological solutions to the fear. For instance, so how the gospel and union with Christ should impact that problem, key passages from Scripture, what the process of change by God’s grace would look like for change, and then just helpful homework, assignments, and resources so that that person can immediately sit down with that military woman or that military member and step through certain things so that they can change for God’s glory.

Dale Johnson: Now you’ve written a book on this, Ministering to Military Women. And I want to recommend that if you’re looking to minister in this context, I think this would be so important for you to get a hold of, particularly those who are ministering to women. But even more broadly for you, you man, you’re going to encounter scenarios in the culture of the military in a way that I think would be instructive and very, very helpful. Very helpful to you and give your church ways that you can minister well. But I want to ask you about other resources, what are some other things, Aurelia that we could avail ourselves to that would be helpful as we try to minister in this context?

Aurelia Smith: Two of the resources that I really appreciate it were written by Robert Greene and they are very short pamphlets that would be great to have as part of a church ministry. And one of them is called Leaving Your Family Behind: Preparing for Military Deployment. Another is called Reuniting After Military Deployment. And is part of those checklists that I talked about that we’ve created for our church when families are going through deployment, pre-deployment we give them those resources. When they’re about to integrate back as a family, we hand them that, right? And so, it’s just a great way to minister in that way. I’d also highly recommend the websites like Fallen Soldiers March, and Mighty Oaks Warrior Program so that people can look into what is involved with those ministries, and maybe even look at practically how they can help and contribute in that way and there are other books as well. I can give you a listing of other authors but those would be the top ones that I would recommend.

Dale Johnson: That’s so helpful, and sister, I’m so grateful that you are willing to talk about these issues and help us to address often problems or issues that are overlooked because we see these people as transient, and sometimes we don’t see military members as distinctly part of our church. Because they’re like here today, and then they’re out. Now we have a responsibility and I think you brought that out super clearly today. And we need to, we need to meet the challenge to ministering well in every case and context that the Lord gives to us, and we want to encourage them because as you said God’s about to send them to another place and we want to equip them well to go to that assignment and to live for His glory wherever he sends them. So thank you, sister. I appreciate it.

Helpful Resources:

Ministering to Military Women: Biblical Help & Hope by Aurelia M Smith.

Rob Green’s booklets:

Leaving Your Family Behind: Preparing for Military Deployment

Reuniting after Military Deployment: Help for the Transition