March 5, 2019

Serving Those Who Serve

Adventists did, and still serve their country.

Richard Stenbakken

Editors’ note: This article mostly covers military chaplaincy in the United States.

The year 1969 saw the United States embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam. Adventists were being drafted, and some joined because they knew they would soon be drafted.

The Church and the Draft

At the time the church’s position on serving in the military was 1-A-O, meaning church members who were in the military should avoid weapons or weapons training. The military honored the church’s stance on these matters and granted its members the appropriate 1-A-0 designation. Their status depended on their church’s position, not on individual conscience.

Many conference youth directors conducted Medical Cadet Corps (MCC) training to prepare draftees for a better fit into the military. Training in drill and ceremony, first aid, military customs, and other non-weapons training enabled Adventists who entered the military to have a “jump start” into military life. Most Adventists, but not all, served in the medical fields as a result. Many served in Operation Whitecoat, from 1954 to 1973, doing protective studies to prevent injury by chemical or biological agents.

In 1969 only 13 active-duty Adventist chaplains served in all branches of the United States military.

Challenges required the church to reexamine its 1-A-O position. Some draftees said their conscientious convictions compelled them to not serve in the military in any capacity. They were conscientious objectors, or 1-O, whereas the official position of the Adventist Church was 1-A-O, not 1-O. The draft board could not honor these individual conscientious objectors.

In 1973 the Adventist Church revised the policy from requiring 1-A-O to recommending/advocating noncombatancy. In effect, the church moved from being the conscience of its members to informing their conscience, and allowing individuals’ consciences to determine how, or if, they would serve in the military.

This allowed the church to support conscientious objector members at the same level as noncombatant Adventists. The policy change was made to afford support for a wider range of church members. Official military policy also changed from making judgments based on church membership to the individual member’s conscientious convictions.

The National Service Organization (NSO), the agency of the church that assisted Adventists in the military, also acted as the endorsing agency that cleared, called, and approved all chaplains who represented the church as military chaplains. Interestingly, NSO leaders had no military or professional chaplaincy experience.

In 1989 Martin Feldbush, who had served as a hospital chaplain, was called to be an associate director for the new General Conference service called Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM). The service was expanded to oversee the growing number of Adventist chaplains serving in the military, and to give recognition and support to health care and other areas of chaplaincy that were expanding rapidly. Military members received Bible kits, literature, support for Sabbath observance, and other accommodations, and were served by six servicemen’s centers and multiple civilian chaplains working with ACM.

A Changing Climate

The draft ended in 1973, but the pay, educational opportunities, and generous GI Bill financing for post-service college drew church members to join the military of their own volition. It was still possible to join as a 1-A-O. Some did, some did not. The church continued its support for Adventists serving in the military.

In 1990 I was one of two active-duty Adventist chaplains to be promoted to full colonel. Herman Kibble (Navy) and I (Army) were promoted and began serving as captain/colonel in our respective branches. This was a first for Adventists, and provided wider recognition of the skills Adventist chaplains brought to military services.

In 2000 Adventist Barry Black was selected to serve as chief of chaplains (two-star admiral) of the U.S. Navy. In 2003 he became chaplain of the U.S. Senate, where he currently serves.

In 1992 the General Conference asked me to be director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries as the first-ever director of the department who had been in the military. ACM now had two seasoned, professional chaplains who had served in their respective fields to assist in the professionalization of the department and to enlarge support for Adventists serving in the military and other institutional settings like the Veteran’s Administration, federal prisons, and Adventist, and other health-care institutions and colleges.

Adventist relations with the military during the last 50 years have ranged from supporting those drafted to operating retreat centers; from civilian chaplains to greatly expanding the number of Adventist military chaplains. Now both the General Conference and North American Division (NAD) have full departments to assist chaplains and church members in the military, and others who serve in major institutional settings.

The NAD currently has 131 active-duty military, reserve, and National Guard chaplains. These chaplains bring the presence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to places and situations where no other clergy can go. Quite a change from 13 chaplains in 1969.

Looking Ahead

What does the future hold?  We know that the future holds “wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6). We know the church does not and has not supported war and combat, but we know we must respond to the pastoral call to serve those who are in the military and their organizations by having representatives of our faith whenever or wherever there is a need.

The MCC, after dwindling at the end of the draft, is being revived to form a corps of youth who are trained as well-prepared disaster relief intervention personnel.

Military chaplaincies are rapidly expanding beyond the NAD with two military chaplains in Ghana, three in Zambia, and one (who is chief of chaplains) in Malawi.

There will be continued challenges in the changing landscape of church and military relations, and there will also be growing ministry opportunities. The past 50 years have been interesting, challenging, changing times. While we don’t know what the future holds, we do know who holds the future.

It is telling, and a call to military ministry, to remember that only one voice called Jesus the Son of God that crucifixion afternoon. It was the voice of a military officer. Military people today call out for ministry, and the Adventist Church is responding to those calls. We can do no less.


Richard Stenbakken served as an active-duty Army chaplain from 1969 to 1992, then as ACM director/endorser from 1992 to 2005.

Richard Stenbakken
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