Chaplains shape much of their vocation around being present in moments of death, grief, anxiety and loss. Advocating for airmen who need additional care, tending to spiritual needs and offering confidential counseling are only a few of the essential services provided by military chaplains, all of which faced increased need with the advent of COVID-19.
Air Force Chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Martin Booth was among The Wesleyan Church’s chaplains at the forefront of the pandemic.
Promoted in 2020 to lieutenant colonel, Booth has served as an ordained minister in Wesleyan congregations and as a U.S. military chaplain for over 20 years. He started with three years in the Navy before transitioning in 2004 to serve in the Air Force.
Promotion was a possibility, but not a certainty, in 2020; Booth was only 45 days away from retirement when he received notice that he was being promoted.
“I’m reminded that the Scripture says (in Psalm 23), ‘God is my shepherd,’” said Booth. “Not my geometry teacher, not a surveyor, not someone who always leads in neat, straight or direct lines — a shepherd.”
The events of the past year made this recognition especially timely, as Booth and his colleagues navigated chaplaincy in an increasingly unusual time. While many military operations were disrupted due to COVID-19, the Air Force’s ingenuity allowed them to continue receiving onsite trainees during COVID. Utilizing entry control, COVID screening and a drive-through pharmacy, the Trainee Health Squadron deployed on-site, built tents to screen all the basic trainees for COVID and shifted their work schedule to two shifts, seven days a week.
Since then, this operation has grown to accommodate a robust COVID vaccination line. Chaplains are present at nearly every stage in this process: advocating for airmen who need additional resources, offering visitation and care to medical staff and sharing personal presence while abiding by COVID restrictions. Booth provided pastoral care for the team responsible for implementing these changes and supported his chaplains as they innovated under pressure.
One of Booth’s chaplains who works specifically with students led three recurring inter-faith services after the on-base chapel closed; these services allowed students to social distance without leaving the dormitory. That same chaplain launched a weekly podcast, virtually counseled over 200 students and delivered 210 care packages (when students were quarantined), among other services.
Having pastored in the local church, Booth sees many similarities between chaplaincy and local church ministry. Death, grief, loneliness and isolation are frequent guests in any community and, though the military population contends with each of those issues uniquely, much of the presence is the same. But chaplains — by nature of their service — share a wider variety of experiences with their congregations than many pastors are able to.
“The people I serve see me in all kinds of situations where I’m more vulnerable. We deploy together, we work out at the same gym, eat at the same dining facility,” said Booth. “Maybe I take my PT test (physical fitness test) with someone from one of my units — we are more vulnerable and transparent. They see me when I have a bad day; there’s no hiding it. And I like that. I’m a human with flaws and faults. And they see us and get to know us, and there’s a trust and understanding that we’re just as human as they are.”
As he considers how pastors, lay leaders and church attenders can work on building trust and rapport with the people God brings into their lives, Booth emphasized the importance of consistent conversation.
“It’s like diet and exercise,” Booth said. “If you exercise once a year or eat an apple once a quarter, it’s really hard to feel healthy. The important thing is to walk with people and spend time with them. My ‘flock’ is made up of people, ages 18-70. Some are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, atheist or of no affiliation — but they are all my sheep. If I engage people, anything can happen. A conversation can turn from casual to serious in a hurry if we walk with people in their environment and on their turf.”
Chaplains offer counsel with a promise of total confidentiality. Like a priestly confessional, Booth’s conversations with service members remain in confidence. But when a service member would benefit from the resources, voice or presence of a chaplain, Booth provides whatever help is necessary.
“When people have felt they’ve been discriminated against, I’ve dialed the number for the equal opportunity office, or sat with people while they talk or drove them over to have a conversation with another person,” said Booth. “I’ve sat with people while they call the sexual assault response coordinator. I have sat with sergeants and commanders and talked with them on a soldier’s behalf.”
During the pandemic, these conversations took place in person or over the internet. Booth’s chaplain team continued to draw near to those who, like all of us at some point, would benefit advocacy, help and resources.
Like other Wesleyan chaplains serving during the pandemic, Booth continues to emphasize the pervasive need for spiritual care. Religious background, economic status and political affiliation change the way people look for spiritual care, but every person needs a trusted friend to remain curious, give courage and listen with the heart.
Learn more about chaplaincy in The Wesleyan Church.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of collegians and young adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s division of Education and Clergy Development.