Before my appointment to the Army chaplaincy by our bishop in June 1996, and even before I was selected by the Army Chief of Chaplains' Office in February 1996, I began pondering the possibilities of how to maintain ties with my colleagues and friends back home in the civilian parish ministry once I was activated by the Army. I wondered whether some of them would want to maintain contact with me on more than a casual basis after my departure. After all, our commonality--parish ministry--no longer seemed to be something we had in common, though this is not really true. If the world truly is our parish, as John Wesley said, then the chaplaincy is but the same ministry slightly modified to fit another part of our parish--that is, a different setting. A military chaplain is a parish minister to the men and women in uniform and their families. Military chaplains preach, teach, visit, serve the sacraments, offer counseling, and perform a wide variety of other ministry-related tasks tailored for those in the military setting. Military chaplains are noncombatants--that is, they do not bear arms. Indeed, they are prohibited from doing so by the Geneva Convention. What is the difference, then, between a civilian parish minister and a military chaplain? The former itinerates within the bounds of the local Conference area while the latter itinerates all around the world.
Before being appointed to serve as an Army chaplain, I had already observed what appeared to me to be a ministry in isolation for those who chose to leave the local parish ministry and/or the geographical bounds of our Conference to serve in other specialized ministries elsewhere. I resolved to make my experience a different one. I had no sooner left the Delchamps Center near the end of Annual Conference when Rev. Paul Wolfe offered to send me St. Mark's church newsletter to help me keep in touch, which I gratefully accepted. I was already getting the Skipperville and Magnolia church newsletters (two churches from one of my former appointments), the newsletter from my home church (Tabernacle, in Dothan), and the newsletter from Westside in Geneva as well. I would be pleased to receive any other church newsletters anyone wants to send me. I also owe a special thanks to Walter Albritton who, by suggesting (via email) that I write something for the Advocate related to keeping in contact with the Conference as a chaplain, is helping me fulfill my resolution to myself and our bishop, who also reminded me to stay connected to our Conference after my departure into the Army chaplaincy; thus, the premise of this article.
Military chaplaincy is perhaps the farthest-removed ministry setting there is, next to missionary service to a foreign country. Both, however, are done for the Kingdom of Christ and, for United Methodists, as a representative of the United Methodist Conference. The Conference has a right to know what sort of ministry is being done on its behalf, hence the parade of ABLCs (Appointments Beyond the Local Church) at Annual Conference each year; but is this annual event the only connection between an ABLC minister and the Conference? How many members of the Conference--besides the Annual Conference delegates--actually know or hear about the ministry of ABLCs? Could this connection be enhanced to provide both a broader knowledge and understanding of the ABLC ministry and a stronger support for the ABLC minister? If so, how?
One way, of course, is by writing articles like this one for the Conference magazine detailing one's ministry setting, and another is by taking advantage of the new telecommunications rave of the computer age: electronic mail, or email. Even this article was emailed to the Advocate editor! The only drawback to emailing is the limited number of persons who are currently online, but that is only temporary--hopefully--until more AWFC members get online!
With the advent and wider accessibility of the World Wide Web (WWW), email is the latest communications boon. Depending on one's online server, the free-flow of email can be virtually limitless! It is by far the swiftest, most cost-effective way of communicating in today's world. Now, those who are online-capable can communicate instantaneously with each other from nearly anywhere in the world. Gone are the days or weeks interim between mailing Christmas, Easter, and other greetings (though, unfortunately, they still haven't figured a way to email packages!). Unnecessary now are the costly long distance telephone calls to get swift answers to important questions. All this has had the cumulative effect of fulfilling the words of a now infamous song, "It's a small, small world!"
Little did I know when I approached the Conference Committee on Communication and Interpretation in August 1995 with the far-fetched idea of creating a web site on the Internet and compiling a Conference Email Directory that by paving the way for better and swifter communication between myself and the Conference, not to mention between everyone else and the Conference, I would be benefiting myself most of all; but that's just what happened! Now, even though I'm far removed from the Conference geographically, I can still maintain daily contact with members and various leaders of the AWFC at no greater expense than when I was physically present in the Conference area!
On October 31, 1995, we were only the seventh United Methodist Conference to create our own web site and to have a direct email line straight to our Conference headquarters! Now, there are over two dozen Conferences, with more getting online almost every month! Now that our our bishop's office and the Pensacola District office are accessible online, hopefully, the remaining district offices will soon be accessible, too.
Indeed, I can envision a day not so far into the future when every church/charge in our Conference will be online communicating about everything from weekly worship planning between the pastor and Worship Committee (something I did with my bulletin typist and Music Director just before I left Trinity (Weoka)) to making arrangements for guest speakers at homecoming/revival services to sending RSVPs for district dinners to sending quarterly evangelism and annual Vision 2000 attendance campaign figures, just to name a few! This really is the dawn of a new era in ministry!
The business community and the military, in particular, are beginning to make much wider use of the WWW, including sending and receiving email, sending and receiving data and binary files, and creating a plethora of web sites. Incidentally, after I let my Post Chaplain know that I helped our Conference create its own web site last fall, he appointed me to create a web site for the Ft. Sill Post Chaplain's Office and to be its webmaster. The URL is http://sill-www.army.mil/chapel/fsokchap.htm We are only the second Post Chaplain's Office to be on the Internet! Be sure to check it out and see what all we have to offer!
Having said all this, I hope I have shown how I have remained--and how I plan to continue--in connection with the Connection. Truly, I have been in contact with more than just members of the AWFC. I have corresponded by email with several United Methodists from coast-to-coast in the U. S., as well as with a Methodist journalist in Norway and two brothers who are Evangelical Methodists in Germany who browsed Trinity (Weoka's) web site and emailed me with their positive comments. I could say lots more about this, but perhaps I'll save that discussion for another time.
In case you aren't online yet, let me heartily encourage you to do so, and if you want to establish a connection with me and help me stay connected to the Connection, my principal email address is email@example.com [no longer mine]. Write me sometime! I look forward to hearing from you!