Serving a one-year tour in Iraq as a Navy chaplain, I was assigned to the II Marine Expeditionary Force. My task: to provide ministry coverage to a battalion special task force located in the western desert of the Al Anbar province, an area bordering Syria and Jordan.
The region is arid, isolated, and harsh. The task force of marines providing security to the area was spread out in small groups occupying command outposts and forward operating bases throughout the region.
Providing ministry coverage required long convoys to the outposts from a base camp known as Camp Korean Village, a small village once built and occupied by North Koreans who were contracted by Saddam Hussein to build the highway that connects Jordan and Syria with Central Iraq.
In the summer, the temperature reaches 140 degrees. Doing ministry in this environment means long hours of boredom mixed with conducting field services for sometimes as few as two or three and at other times as many as 40.
I wasn't there long before I began to wonder if the personnel I was serving valued what I was doing. The military culture is not highly expressive, so it's sometimes hard to gauge how you're being received.
I wondered, Do these people value what I'm doing, even in a general sense? Does it make sense to get the education required, then go through the military training and the family sacrifices that are inherent with military chaplaincy? Can a person make an impact for God doing this?
After five months at Korean Village, I returned to Fallujah and rediscovered the refreshment that comes from the companionship of other chaplains. I quickly learned that other chaplains were having the same thoughts and questions.
I asked one chaplain friend how things were going. A reservist who had been activated to serve a year in Iraq with a unit he really didn't know, his eyes dropped to the floor and he lowered his voice as if making a confession.
He talked about how he had been visiting marines and sailors in their work spaces and doing "deck-plate ministry," but he said he couldn't tell if he was making any difference in their lives.
Like others in pastorates and other forms of ministry, we question our real value. We can live with a haunting feeling that our ministry could end at any minute without any significance. We long to see lives transformed, but sometimes we don't sense much of that happening. Just doing the tasks and functions of ministry isn't enough.
The Real Job amid Multi-Tasks
Don't get me wrong, there is a place for tasks and functions in ministry. We need to keep our to-do list to stay organized. We need to set goals. We need to do real work and establish measurable objectives.
In my office I have shelves full of canned programs, and programs I've created, and even a file entitled "Good Ideas I've Stolen from Other Chaplains." I have programs for marriage enrichment, troop retreats, and character development. I conduct worship services on bases and at remote outposts.
These are some of the tasks of "doing ministry." But most of us long to be something more than just a "doer of tasks."
In a task-driven ministry, our day is planned and carried out according to the to-do list and daily planner. But task-driven ministry sometimes gets in the way of opportunities to do God's will.
Amid the to-do lists, we can miss the Spirit-led ministry, the divine appointments God provides for us to do his will. This is the evangelism that is guided by God; it's spontaneous, serendipitous, divinely appointed.