A guide for pastors and church leaders with military families in their church
Since 9/11, 2.7 million U.S. military service members have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and over 3 million spouses and children have stood behind these heroes to shoulder the burden of the conflict at home. Many times these home-front heroes live some distance from installations and lack a military environment, which is ready to support them. This is where the Church can shine.
Military kids can be remarkably resilient at times, but they are not super-human. The absence of their parents is filled with uncertainty, risks, and challenges, and even pastors without personal military experience can assist these young children and youth in meaningful ways. Here are a few things to remember when working with them.
• There is not a one-size-deployment that fits every kid. Be careful to avoid clichés and, “I know how you feel,” statements. It is a quick turnoff for kids to encounter someone who uses military jargon but does not understand the hardships of military life. Remember that each child experiences unique challenges based on age and gender, even within the same family. Recognize that a deployment is unlike the work-related travels of civilian parents. Military and civilian kids both have a big ache in their heart for parents who are gone. But, the military kid lives with the added burden of a deployment up to a year or more, as well as the constant threat of danger to the parent.
• Talk with parents or guardians at home to gain insight to a child’s needs. Ask them if they would like for you to take their child or teen out for coffee or a hamburger. My wife specifically asked other women—one was our youth pastor’s wife—to take our kids out for lunch and talk with them about the challenges they were facing. We paid for the meal and, at the time, our daughters never knew that we sat up the appointment. The input of the other adults was priceless
• Help military kids develop healthy friendships. Military kids often bond quickly when arriving in a new community since they move so often and their friends are transient. Sometimes, however, they will bond with the wrong kids in vulnerable ways. You, the pastor or church leader, should be sensitive to the new friendships being formed and guide these relationships in healthy directions
• In every situation, pray for insight, sensitivity, good timing, and God-opportunities to minister to kids. Pray as a group for the soldier’s safety. Military kids do not want to be the center of attention at every meeting, but neither do they want to be forgotten. Let them know you care, are conscious of their unique situation, and available to talk about it.
• Do not forget the kids after a parents return. The re-entry of parents can be awkward and stressful. Returning parents can easily make two mistakes: they can often be indulgent, or too harsh in discipline. Either response can cause stress in a marriage, which has a trickle-down effect on the child.
• Churches near a military post will usually have good resources available from the chaplains or other agencies. Army National Guard and Reservist families are more cut off from military resources, so a pastor / church leader will have to work hard to fill the gap with children and teens.
• Help kids deal with their unspoken fear: the loss of a parent. If a parent is killed while serving, a child suddenly becomes a Gold Star kid. Initially, the military will offer a lot of help and support to the family. Before long, however, life has a new norm, and the dull reality sets in that dad or mom is not just deployed, but is never coming home. Anger, depression, denial, and disbelief are normal emotions. The child needs people of faith at these times to be there to listen and provide comfort, not necessarily to provide theological answers about death. In time they may want discussions about God’s eternal purposes, but during the initial shock of their parent’s death, they are not ready to absorb these conversations.
• Remember that the difficulties of growing up without the parent may cause pain and hardship, which intensifies over time. A wise pastor or church leader can help a youngster move from despair to purpose during that extended period after loss.
• If a dad or mom does not return, a pastor should remember the deceased parent’s birthday and day of their death. “Thinking of you, praying for you” messages on those days mean a lot to a youngster. Grief camps like those hosted by Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors, helps kids realize they are not alone, and gives them friendships with other children who have lost their parents or siblings
Military service is costly to soldiers, but spouses and children also suffer in the shadows. Support from pastors and their churches can go a long way to ease the burdens they carry.