‘Padre, have you got a minute?’
Baptist chaplain Jonathan Stewart, the youngest serving chaplain in the RAF, on ministering beyond the walls of the church
“Padre, have you got a minute?” These words always cause me to smile inwardly. “Of course,” I reply, with an external smile to match my inward one, even when in reality I have the burning issues of emails, meetings and the general mundane to do. This question is one that I can hear several times a day, and invariably one minute is not long enough to hear what is being expressed. However, I smile because it is a small reminder of the privilege of ministering beyond the walls of the church, where those who may have never set foot in a church building before turn to ‘their Padre’ to talk about the challenges that life, work and a myriad of other issues is bringing to them.
I have been a Chaplain in the RAF for the last four years, having felt called to it mid way through my NAMS (Newly Accredited Minister). I am currently based at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell which is the entry point for all officers into the RAF. The role primarily involves work with the officer cadets, with the majority undertaking a six month course in which chaplaincy plays an integral role. We deliver lessons on ‘Beliefs and values’ which include topics such as respect, integrity and ethics, as well as running around in muddy fields while they are on exercise, through to preaching at their graduation service. Of course, for me, this is just a temporary stop on the journey having previously been at RAF Brize Norton and a four month Operational deployment in the Middle East. I am also currently the youngest serving chaplain in the RAF at the tender age of 33, meaning that as we explore what ministry to 18-35s’ looks like, I am in a fairly unusual position!
This ministry beyond the walls reaches out to a generally unchurched and younger generation, where 95 per cent of what is done is outside of the church community. Or as one cadet said to me once “You don’t really do the religious stuff do you, Padre?” However I do find myself still immersed within a community and one in which chaplaincy is placed in high regard.
I love reading about Paul’s missionary journeys, but it is the account of Paul as a tentmaker that I find incredibly powerful. Though he exercised a public ministry within the Church, he also just sat with those outside the church, serving them, talking with them, not necessarily doing the religious stuff. But I imagine that within his work he still sought to share something of the hope he had in Christ. As a chaplain, I have found something not to dissimilar; institutional barriers are broken down as we are just asked by the organisation to sit with people, and to care for them, and out of that we get to share something of God’s love for them.
Of course we can see this in any form of ministry, but what I think is special and unique as a military chaplain is that we are so immersed in the organisation. We wear the same uniform as those we serve, we move around the country like they do, we deploy overseas as they do, we miss our families like they do. We become part of their story, because their story is our story.
Out of this, I believe, trust grows and those who start the conversation with ‘I am not religious but…’ suddenly have the confidence to open up about their deepest concerns. Even though often I can’t make a practical difference to their situation I have the chance to listen, and allow them to be heard. For some it seems as though they have never had that opportunity before, to have someone to listen. They might have hundreds of friends on social media but the most ‘real’ conversation they have had comes in a wet Lincolnshire field.
I have noticed that for a number of these young people they struggle to make relationships that are deep and lasting, but they are yearning for something more. One of the most common reasons they tell me for why they joined is that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and they want to make a difference in the world. The military offers them that chance, and hopefully chaplaincy points them to something even deeper still.
The RAF Chaplains’ Branch vision is to serve the RAF community through ‘Prayer, Presence and Proclamation’ aiming to achieve this by showing value, giving hope and a reason for existence beyond what we now see. This is something that on a daily basis I really get to do and I count it as a privilege that we are allowed the freedom to support the men and women of the armed forces, to bring something of the eternal into their, so often, temporary realities. My hope and prayer is that as the men and women of the armed forces serve their country both at home and overseas that there will always be a place for chaplains’ to walk that journey with them. When the worst happens, and history shows us that this happens more often than any of us would like, chaplains will be there to walk arm in arm, to encourage and support them, and ultimately point them to a relationship with the one who loves and cares for them above all.
Jonathan Stewart is a Baptist chaplain based at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, Lincolnshire
This article appears in the Summer 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine
Photos | Jonathan Stewart
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