Late last month in a northern Virginian suburb just inside the I-495 Beltway, McLean Presbyterian Church (PCA) held its second annual military hail and farewell. Traditionally, a “hail and farewell” event is for military servicemembers who have gone through a permanent change of station (PCS), such as when they relocate to a different unit or base or when they deploy overseas. During this event, both civilian and military church members ate a potluck dinner together, welcomed new arrivals, said goodbye to those who would leave soon, heard updates from those who had already been deployed, and learned about how the church could better serve those in the military.

According to Nathan Newman, an assistant pastor at McLean Presbyterian and US Air Force Reserve chaplain, he started the church’s hail and farewell after seeing his denomination endorser, who is responsible for recruiting and assisting the PCA denomination’s military chaplains, host a similar event. A hail and farewell can be one way a church ministers to military servicemembers and their families partially because it can help a church realize who is in the military. “We take care of our own,” Newman explained, “but can’t always care for one another if you don’t know who each other are.” He therefore launched the church’s event so that military families could connect and so civilian church members could learn what military life is like. Moreover, the church’s location in the DC metro area, which has a large military presence, means numerous church members either serve, have served, or have other jobs for organizations like the Defense Department or State Department that require frequent moves. Even though these families may leave DC after a couple years, they frequently return for other jobs and positions, and they often return to the church if they develop meaningful relationships there. But Newman encourages churches outside the DC area to host similar events because there are military servicemembers, reservists, and others across the country who would benefit for them.

Besides ministering to servicemembers, a hail and farewell can help civilians. Newman said that, even though he thought the event would primarily connect military families with each other, he learned it helped educate civilians about military families’ unique needs and their unique contributions to the church. “As I continue speaking to military families,” he said, “I came to see it was really everyone else in our congregation who needed to be educated about what military family life is like, both to equip our congregation to care for the military community and to learn from them.” He elaborated that civilians could learn the unique ways servicemembers “can contribute to our spiritual growth and development because it’s not just about us serving them but them serving us, too.” For instance, Newman described how military life can force people to develop quick and deep friendships because these families don’t have time to wait if they need those types of relationships. The church then benefits when these families participate in small groups or Bible studies because this skill can help the church reach out to and love on more people. And civilian church members can learn this skill so that they don’t wait months or years to develop meaningful friendships that become crucial in difficult times.

Mark L. Rockefeller, a US Air Force veteran and CEO of StreetShares who spoke at the hail and farewell last month, explained other ways military servicemembers could serve the church. According to him, their experiences can help them serve in logistical or operational volunteer roles, and their international perspective can help with mission trips.

For the past two years, the church’s hail and farewell has followed a similar pattern. First, there was an old-fashioned potluck followed by Newman’s introductory comments and then remarks from a guest speaker, usually a church member. Last year, Molly Huggins, a US Army helicopter pilot and veteran whose husband is still in active duty, discussed how civilians often don’t understand the subtle difficulties servicemembers endure. For instance, moving to a new city while a spouse is deployed overseas can cause additional stress that exacerbates a new father’s or mother’s already hectic life, especially if he or she is an extrovert who needs new friends. While civilian church members may recognize parenthood’s regular difficulties, they may not easily realize how military life amplifies the strain. Huggins also spoke directly to fellow military personnel when she advised them to “plant perennials,” or invest in a church community and develop close friendships that will blossom for years, even though they will have to say goodbye.

This year Rockefeller spoke about how his Christian faith served as a “true north” whenever he faced difficult issues in the military. The same way a traveler in unknown territory can find his way as long as he focuses on true north, a Christian in the military can rely on scripture, faith, and church community during dilemmas that the Bible does not address explicitly. While serving as a lawyer in Iraq, he had to address whether or not a 14-year-old boy would be tried as an adult in a chaotic legal system. Other times he had to determine whether there was sufficient declassified evidence to prosecute a suspect, or whether the court would need more classified information. While these situations did not have a definitive Christian answer, his faith helped him determine the wisest option.

After the speaker, each year Newman has led the “hail” when servicemembers who were new to the church could stand and introduce themselves and their families. This time has been vital because church members, both civilian and military, could recognize and welcome newcomers, especially for a relatively large church. Then the church has used the “farewell” to officially say goodbye to those moving, and announcements about who will deploy and leave family behind help members know who needs care and prayers during that difficult time.

McLean Presbyterian Church Challenge Coin Military Civilian Divide
Nathan Newman, assistant pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church and chaplain in the US Air Force Reserve, holds the church’s challenge coin. Photo courtesy of Mark Melton.

Finally, following a military tradition, Newman gave servicemembers challenge coins with McLean Presbyterian’s logo. For civilians not familiar with the practice, those in the military can receive such medallions for some special achievement, and many outside the military and government have copied the practice. According to a military drinking game, if someone calls “coin check,” whoever has the lowest-ranking coin has to pay.

Events like this hail and farewell can enhance a church’s ministry because it helps educate civilians, including the clergy, about how the military profession affects individuals and families differently. As I’ve written elsewhere in Providence, a wide civilian-military divide exists between those who serve and the rest of society partially because fewer Americans join the military today. If civilian church members and clergy only have a superficial understanding about military life, they may have difficulty relating or ministering to military families.

While a church potluck with a hail and farewell may seem like a small gesture, events like this can be a pragmatic way the church can minister to its servicemembers and their families. Not only would civilian laypeople and clergy learn about military life, they would also recognize who in the congregation serves. If a husband or wife deploys to a war zone overseas, more church members would know and could come alongside the families who remain home. According to Rockefeller, the churches he joined during his nine years of service and six moves were those that understood the military lifestyle, welcomed him and his family, introduced them to the local area, and looked after his family while he was deployed. A hail and farewell can help a church develop the type of welcoming churches Rockefeller and others need. And as Huggins noted in her keynote, these events can help servicemembers become more active within the church so that they can serve it as well.

Mark Melton is Providence’s deputy editor He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of McLean Presbyterian Church.