The Rev. Peter N. Fischer, a Chaplain and Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, arrived in the United Kingdom in July 2012. Since then, he’s been working to share the love of Christ with military families of all faiths and religious traditions at his Air Force base. Here, he explains what exactly he does and how it’s impacting those around him.
Q. What are the needs at an Air Force base in the United Kingdom?
Peter Fischer: They are certainly unique. Families here do not have the normal support structure available to them that many people have in the U.S. (e.g., parents, siblings, grandparents, other extended family.) This makes the military community very close as we really have to depend upon each other, care for one another, and lean on one another in times of crisis, stress, and even rejoicing, like with the birth of a new baby.
Military chaplaincy is a very unique ministry because we serve such diverse populations. Within our chapel service, which is a Protestant worship service, we have Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Presbyterians, non-denominational folks —you name it, we’ve got them worshipping with us! Some would say it’s a little bit like what we can expect to see in heaven. Most of our “congregations” are younger since nearly 70% of the Air Force community is between 18-35 years old. So, there are lots of younger children, nursery/toddler, and elementary aged religious education opportunities as well. It is not a strictly “Anglican” work. However, as the only Protestant “baby baptizer” on the base, I do get my fair share of requests for baptisms, confirmation classes and weddings in the liturgical tradition.
Q. How did you discern the call to military chaplaincy?
P.F. Well, I was pretty hardheaded about that, actually. I began my military career in 1983 as an enlisted chaplain assistant in the Army. After getting off of active duty, I stayed in the National Guard and attended college and then seminary. To be a Protestant chaplain you must have your Master of Divinity degree. After seminary, I pastored a small church in Indianola, Mississippi, and was content to be a civilian pastor and National Guard or Reserve “part-time” military chaplain. However, God had other plans. He had been working on me to become a chaplain for several years, with me stubbornly insisting that I knew best how to serve Him. Finally, I gave in and re-entered active duty with the Army as a chaplain in 1998. Then, in 2002, after serving four years as an Army chaplain with the 82d Airborne Division, I transferred from the Army to the Air Force and have been with the Air Force ever since—almost 12 years now.
Q. What does a normal day look like for a military chaplain?
P.F. That question really depends upon your rank. When I first began, as a “chaplain, captain,” I did a lot of pastoral work, unit visitation, counseling, preaching, weddings and funerals, as well as staff meetings and special projects like prayer luncheons and marriage retreats. Now that I am a “chaplain, lieutenant colonel,” my job entails more administrative work, organizational oversight and mentoring younger chaplains. And as I mentioned before, as a “liturgical Protestant” chaplain, I am often called upon to help with things that would normally be captain or major pastoral duties like infant baptisms, liturgical funerals and weddings, etc. This is, of course, a source of great joy for me as it gives me the opportunity to continue to minister and not just work in administration! I offer to preach on a monthly basis to give our junior chaplains a break—a joy for me and a relief for them and their families.
Q. How do you gauge “success” or impact?
P.F. I like to tell people that if your world is clearly black and white, you would probably not like the chaplaincy. Here, we live in a world of gray. Success is often watching people move from a dark shade of gray to a lighter shade. One example of success is a note that was given to me along with a special coin that a fellow airman had carried with him during his entire one-year tour in Korea. I received these from a fellow student after attending an eight-week course with him. The note read: “Padre, Thank you for bringing renewed faith to my spirit. I hope to serve with you again. Your friend, _____.” This individual hadn’t been in church for years! He had given up on faith. This note was a mark of success for me.
Another recent example was a couple who came to me to have their grandson baptized. The grandmother had stopped attending church several years ago, the grandfather had been Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness and finally given up on being part of any church. I worked with this family for several weeks preparing them to be sponsors for their grandson. After the baptism, they now all attend chapel together every week! The grandfather essentially rededicated his life to the Lord and is leading his family in a renewed Christian life.
One last “success” story is of a senior enlisted member whom I was deployed with in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. After serving for months together in the combat zone and almost never speaking with this person, I discovered that he had been watching me the entire time. He was an atheist, and as I was preparing to leave the base, he gave me one of his personal, numbered coins and told me, “I’ve never cared much for chaplains, but you really cared for my people. I now see how important it is for my Airmen to have chaplains.”
And of course, there are the normal, church-growth statistics that excite every pastor. In Fort Bragg, North Carolina, while servicing with the 82d Airborne Division, I had the privilege of being part of the leadership team—and eventually senior pastor—of a weekly worship service that grew from 35 to just under 300 in average weekly attendance in under two years. That was exciting … and exhausting!
Q. What is your greatest challenge as a military chaplain, and how are you trying to overcome it?
P.F. I believe one of the greatest challenges chaplains face is maintaining unity and focus in the ever-broadening diversity of the chaplaincy and military in general. I try to tell new chaplains that this ministry is much like the work that Daniel was called to (remember, he worked for the Babylonian government!). If you are expecting a Christian paradise within the military as a chaplain, you are gravely mistaken. The military reflects, to a great extent, our general society. Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Mormons, New Agers, and Christians of every denomination all come together to form military units, and the U.S. government is dedicated to remaining “neutral” toward religion (or non-religion). You cannot expect “favoritism” for your faith over any other nor can you demand that your faith be recognized without also demanding those same rights for everyone else. Not every pastor can do this. To some, this would be viewed as compromising; to me, it is called “loving your neighbor as yourself.”
Q. What do you love most about being a military chaplain?
P.F. I love military families. They are the best people I know—independent, willing to take some risks, willing to serve and sacrifice for their community. I wouldn’t want to serve anywhere else at this particular time in my life. I also enjoy the diversity of the military community. It forces me to grow; it demands that I leave my cloistered shell and interact with the broader society around me, even when I would prefer not to. I am a much richer person for that interaction.
Q. What do you believe qualifies someone to pursue chaplaincy, and how do you know if you are called?
P.F. Well, I can’t speak for prison, hospital or VA chaplains—but for military chaplains there are some very practical hurdles that need to be addressed first. You must be under 40 years old (with a few exceptions), in relatively good physical condition, have completed a Master of Divinity degree from an accredited school, be ordained with your denomination, and have at least two years fulltime “post seminary” pastoral experience. If a person, male or female, passes all of those qualifications, then I would say they also have to have an adventurous side. You will be moving a lot and experiencing a lot of new things and places. If married, you will need a supportive spouse who understands you will not only move a lot but will spend significant amounts of time apart. You must be willing to minister to and work for and with people of every imaginable faith tradition, and of course, have a love for God, country and military members and their families.
For me, knowing that I was called was simple. I told God there are two things I never wanted to do: pastor in the deep south, and be a military chaplain. After seminary I was sent to the delta of Mississippi (the heart of Dixie) to pastor. From there, well, you guessed it—the Army chaplaincy. I finally realized, I never told God, “I don’t want to be an astronaut!” Or “I never want to be a college professor!” That’s because I wasn’t wrestling with God on those issues. If you are saying, “That’s not something I ever want to do…” maybe you should consider the possibility that you are wrestling with God.
Contact Peter at [email protected]