Why and How Congregations Need to Build a Military Ministry
Why military ministries are important for the military-connected population and how equipped volunteers can offer practical support and promote spiritual resiliency. This community outreach is a win-win.
Retired LtCol Kathy Lowrey Gallowitz is a career Air Force Veteran who served as a Public Affairs Officer and Nurse.
It was her life’s calling to design and lead a never-been-done-before outreach office (in response to 9/11) for the Ohio National Guard to educate and engage civilians in support of troops and their families.
Now, as the owner of Vanguard Veteran, she equips civilians to become Veteran Champions. She coaches volunteers to create “Military Ministries” (in partnership with clergy) to foster connection and a sense of belonging and promote spiritual resiliency.
Master’s degrees in Nursing and Political Science frame her practice and perspectives.
Her husband, Ed is a retired active duty Soldier with four combat tours. Together they have six sons, one daughter, and three grandchildren.
Links for more information:
Military Ministries Matter – A monthly coaching call to equip volunteer military ministry leaders
Vanguard Veteran’s Military Ministry Builder
Veteran Champion Quiz
Invite Vanguard Veteran to Speak
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, it’s Hugh Ballou again for The Nonprofit Exchange. I am the founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. It’s the synergy of the common vision built around transformational leadership, which was modeled after the military. You can’t micro-manage people when you’re out there doing important stuff. Sort of like the conductor in the concert. We build high-performing cultures. If we will be successful in the nonprofit world, it’s about building the skills of the leader and building our team. Our motto is transforming leaders, transforming organizations, transforming lives.
My guest today is Kathy Gallowitz. She is the founder of a very special organization. We are talking about caring for veterans today through religious organizations, but I don’t think it’s limited to that. Kathy, tell people a little bit about who you are and why you do this important work.
Kathy Gallowitz: Hello to all our listeners. Hugh Ballou, I love your mission statement of transforming lives. That is what Vanguard Veteran and I are all about. Quickly, a little bit about my background. I grew up as a Navy brat, so to speak, traveling around the world, moving in the middle of my junior year of high school from Fairfax, Virginia to Keflavík, Iceland. Wow, was that a shock for me, from a class of 400 to a class of 30. You learn to make the best of things. That and being highly mobile shaped me as a person and as a leader.
I joined the Air Force. My dad was Navy, but I joined the Air Force as a nurse. Dad paid for nursing school because I wanted to serve and take advantage of all the other benefits of military service. I was in nursing and public affairs.
My crowning achievement of my career was building a state-wide outreach office for the Ohio National Guard to educate civilians in support of troops and their families. It was really important because 9/11 had happened, and our reserve component, particularly the Guard, was deploying like no time in our nation’s history. The needs of our people really increased from an employment standpoint as well as from a faith standpoint.
Vanguard Veteran was started in 2017. My mission there is to equip volunteers to become military ministry leaders. A little bit more background, if I may, Hugh. This idea started with the Department of Veterans Affairs. They understood maybe 2011-ish that the role of the civilian citizenry, the civilian clergy was absolutely critical because the military chaplains, the veteran chaplains, just could not do all the work that was needed to really promote optimal return to wellness and spiritual wellbeing, which is a huge component of healing. They embarked on educating civilian pastors or clergy from any denomination.
Through my work as a nonprofit in Ohio and my own experience, I really began to understand how critical it is that volunteers lead this effort in partnership with the clergy at their place of worship. Clergy already are overresourced and have so many demands. If you can empower a volunteer to lead this grassroots effort, wow, can you change lives and make a difference. That is the background. How is that for answering that question?
Hugh: Not bad. It’s awesome actually. I served as a chaplain in the army during the Vietnam era. I had hazardous duty in Colorado Springs, working with a chaplain. It was an important duty because people would come back emotionally damaged from Vietnam. Important work as a chaplain. Then they got out, and there was a vacuum.
Some of the numbers I read about the number of homeless veterans, the number with PTSD, and how many commit suicide every day because they can’t get help. There is a big gap in what we’re called to do, even in community charities. There are community charities for veterans, but they’re not really making a dent. This is over and above the work that the government does. We have the VA, but there is a huge need. It’s all across the country, isn’t it?
Kathy: The opportunity to build a military ministry, yes. This notion of equipping volunteers is pretty unique and a tremendous opportunity for civilian clergy to identify those volunteers in their congregation who might be well-suited to do that.
Before we go further, I’d like to touch base quickly on why faith communities are ideally suited to support military-connected people. First of all, it stems from when we’re in uniform, the military chaplain is a place of confidentiality, a person who boosts morale and welfare and is a safe place. We come out of military service with a high regard for the role of a clergy member and appreciate and honor how they can counsel us, encourage us, and help us build spiritual resiliency. That is one thing.
The other thing is research shows that people generally, not just veterans, are 4-5x more likely to approach their clergy with an issue of concern than they are a behavioral health provider, if you will. Nothing against these great behavioral health providers, but the access to clergy is a little bit easier. Certainly, the pay structure is not there. There is probably an already existing relationship with that clergy and their congregation.
Congregations are highly hospitable. That’s what we do. We do the Lord’s work. We bring people into the fold. We serve through our practical ways to get to know people and then hopefully help promote their spiritual resiliency. Those are some of the key reasons that clergy and civilian congregations are well-suited to do this.
The key is to find a volunteer who has a heart for military members, knows a little bit about military culture, has a strong partnership with their pastor or clergy member/rabbi, and is willing to roll up their sleeves and do some great grassroots work and bring people together.
Hugh: Those people exist. Maybe it’s back a little bit. I find that people who are not engaged in activities don’t understand why it’s important. Let’s talk about building a grassroots effort. There are lots of people running nonprofits who are faith-based leaders although it’s not for the purpose of worship, but there is a service aspect.
I served churches from 120 members to 12,000. The larger churches, the more of these ministries they could have. The more they had, the more it invigorated the life of the church. There is a win-win here. Some churches are stretched a lot to get things done right now. How do we get a grassroots movement started? Maybe if it’s not with a church, it might be with a group of churches that are close together. Maybe church/synagogue or different denominations.
Kathy: One of my heroes is a deacon in the Columbus Catholic diocese who started a non-denominational, regional military ministry focused on prayer and pairing. He’d meet one-on-one with veterans who had left military service and their significant other/spouse. Through prayer and pairing with people in the community of the same military branch, people who are transitioned and doing pretty well through their transition, just that effort really does matter. A Catholic church built a non-denominational home, place of connection for people in their county.
Interestingly, in my small community in the Southwest, in Fountain Hills, Arizona, we started a faith community and one non-denominational church. We reached out to another non-denominational church of greater magnitude and size. The pastors were wonderful. It’s not about our particular building; it’s about how we can serve the veterans in our community.
This pastor from the larger congregation had had time, just like you, serving in the Colorado Springs area. His report to me was, “How do we separate faith, church and state?” He was used to working near the active-duty bases. There is a lot of restrictions about what you can do, where you can donate money, what you can’t do. It’s frustrating if you will. I said to both pastors who are meeting recently, “This is our opportunity to build a community-wide, non-denominational, grassroots, spiritual place of connection and belonging without those restrictions.” We are embarking on this wonderful experiment, where there really is not a military base. That’s an ideal place to do this. It’s a little bit more rural.
The first step is to figure out who amongst you has served, is serving, and wants to support them. Making announcements in the bulletin, making announcements from the pulpit, encouraging people who want to get involved to wear their Air Force baseball cap to church. Maybe it’s not great to have a hat in church. Have a T-shirt or something that distinguishes you as military to draw other military people out. That takes some effort and planning.
Hugh: I’m looking at what is behind you. Is that your book?
Kathy: That’s my book, Beyond “Thank You for Your Service:” The Veteran Champion Handbook for Civilians. One of the chapters focuses on the faith community leaders, primarily people in Ohio like this deacon I mentioned, and others who have built military ministries.
One quick story that tugs at your heart. The pastor of a small church said, “We always loved our military, but we didn’t get engaged until we experienced a tragedy.” That tragedy was that the choir director’s son was killed in action. The parents of this killed in action soldier got very engaged in trying to support other military members in the community. That can be done in hundreds of ways.
What we do at Vet Connect in Fountain Hills is have monthly fellowship meetings. That’s what the group wants right now. We are starting to do some service projects. You can support a local military base or family readiness program. You can support deployment ceremonies or welcome home ceremonies. You can study different programs. There is a great We Are Stronger program by Crew Military that talks about what is PTSD? There are manuals for trauma recovery that are specifically focused on combat veterans. There are groups that specifically focus on military spouses of combat veterans. We can dive into having vertical marriages or how to figure out what your purpose in life is. It doesn’t all have to be military-focused.
But the beautiful thing is that when you bring military people together, we get each other. The walls come down pretty much. We have something in common, a common thread, love of country being one of them more often than not. Sharing experiences. Military people more often than not are more willing to open up and share and be authentic in the presence of other military people.
Most of our service members, especially those who experienced combat, 40% of those who have experienced combat have a real tough time regaining their spirituality in finding meaning and purpose. 55% of Iraq & Afghanistan veterans feel highly disconnected from mainstream America.
I heard it described one time like this: When people come back from military service, whether you have served four years or 24 years, they feel like they are entering a foreign country with a foreign language. They don’t feel understood. If we can do anything to decrease isolation, military people don’t ask for help. Bringing them together in a military ministry reduces isolation, promotes connection, and, I believe, will help curb veteran suicide. It’s all about finding that leader who has some leadership skills, some confidence, some willingness to step outside and say, “Let’s get together and see how we can help each other.” As leaders do, figuring out who can do what. Don’t take it all on yourself. Respond to the needs of your group.
Hugh: That’s one of the big reasons we have such burnout with clergy and nonprofit leaders is they take on too much. That’s one of the inaccuracies of how we perceive leadership.
I want to ask you about starting and keeping a program going. Before that, there is a word, “veteran” on the book. You’re saying “military.” To me, military is active duty, and veteran is somebody who has been discharged.
Kathy: That is a tough nut to crack frankly. I just used “veteran” as a catch-all phrase to talk about military-connected people. Any strategies that are covered in the book or I talk about are certainly appropriate for those service members/military; veterans/people who have served; spouses; military-connected people. Certainly those who have served have been shaped heavily by military culture. That is important to understand. We are trying to break down some of those barriers, some of those stigmas, and foster understandings about military culture.
The book offers practical suggestions about how to lead a military ministry. If you are an employer, health care provider, lawyer, community leader, or educator, there are different chapters focusing in on what many Ohioans particularly have done as veteran champions.
Hugh: Let’s brainstorm a minute. We have an idea. We know there is a need. We know our church, even our community, is not handling that. They are not meeting that need. Let’s brainstorm some ways to step up.
This does not have to come from the pastor or rabbi or priest. You get a group of faith leaders together and talk about what the need is. I think the first piece of information people should understand is why it’s needed. What are the alternatives? The alternatives are not good. What are some potential areas of work? Start the conversation. We probably ought to have some military culture people in the conversation to understand the culture. Am I on target?
Kathy: Yes. Let’s talk about the why a little bit more. When people leave military service, 40% have a difficult time regaining spirituality or meaning and purpose. 55% feel disconnected. Fostering a sense of belonging is huge. That’s what a layman can really handle frankly. I’m a nurse, but you don’t have to be a nurse or pastor or counselor to do this grassroots fellowship-building work.
There is more of a why. Some veterans and their families struggle with PTSD. The VA states that Iraq and Afghanistan volunteers, about 20% have PTSD. That means 80% don’t. More than likely, you may run into some people who are struggling. Hurting people go to places of worship to get support. PTSD is something that you need to be aware of. You don’t have to fix it. You know a little bit about veteran community resources. You have a partnership with your clergy member if you get uncomfortable. Together, you figure out what next steps might be.
Certainly, there are things like traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, marital strife, grief and loss. I don’t want to say those things to scare people away because I don’t want to be a counselor. I want to be a friend and encourager. It’s grassroots. I’m a decent listener, so having some listening skills is important. The why is fostering that sense of belonging, encouragement, support, and friendship because that’s what a layperson can do well if they really care about the military-connected population.
Hugh: You hit on some very key things. We don’t have to fix things. I can’t trace the source of this, but the listening piece you said. Listening is so close to loving you can hardly tell the difference. Being present. Some of these conditions and problems you describe are symptoms of the population at large. What makes it different with military-connected people?
Kathy: The difference is that we get each other. We are willing to bond more often than not with people who we can relate to. That is just people generally. The most unique thing is being highly mobile, being super proud of serving in uniform. Many combat veterans need each other to be able to support one another and bring people to help somehow.
In our society, many of us don’t like to ask for help. It’s super strong. Stoicism is super strong in the military population. If you can get other military people around who have experienced something like maybe what you have experienced. Maybe it’s combat or not combat. If you feel comfortable bringing that person alongside you, then you have more, if you will, battle buddies in struggling through life or saving your marriage or recovering from trauma, whatever that might be.
Hugh: 40 years of ministry work, I led lots of mission trips abroad. We went to give away something, but we got more than we gave away. It would occur to me that some of these families of faith could gain something from this culture that we don’t have.
When you’re in combat with somebody, you bond. You’re working together because your life depends on the relationship. We could learn from each other. Having somebody as a champion.
I want to reiterate what you said. You don’t need to be a subject matter expert in any of this. You have to have an understanding that there is a ministry here. You also have to have a willingness to step up and a willingness to engage others and start in dialogue. We are not fixing problems; we are engaging people in community who then will work on the problems together. Am I hearing you right?
Kathy: Yes, you are. I would contend that it’s really valuable to know a little bit about military culture. If you are a military spouse or mom, you are going to have a good foundation. If you haven’t really lived with someone, it’s always good to increase your knowledge. One of the biggest things clearly, and what makes it challenging, is that military people tend to isolate, and it’s hard to get them to participate sometimes. If you can get the spouse there, often the veteran will come.
Hugh: That’s where the church, community needs to learn. It’s mutually beneficial for us to do these programs. What is the future? How do we say, “This is going to be successful, this initiative we’re talking?” What are some of the traits of saying, “Yes, we’re successful?”
Kathy: If I may real quick, I want to define what a veteran champion is. That is someone who builds mutually beneficial activities and services that promote quality of life, work force, and community. When I say quality of life, just like you said, wow, how I contend that any citizen who has not served, your life will be richly blessed by understanding and getting to know those people who have served, understanding their commitment, their sacrifice, their values. It brings tears to my eyes talking about it. I would encourage each and every one of you to take time to connect with veterans and learn from them because you will be richly blessed, and it will be a great learning experience. If you’re not sure how to handle that, there is a blog on my website, VanguardVeteran.com, on how to connect with veterans.
What does success look like? Is that what you’re asking me?
Hugh: Before we do that, your website, since you just mentioned it, is VanguardVeteran.com. If people go there, what will they see? Where do they find the blog you just mentioned?
Kathy: If you scroll down on the homepage, there is a See More button. I have a great training on veteran suicide prevention since it’s the awareness month.
Hugh: There are a lot of resources here.
Kathy: Yes. Under What We Do on the right, you’ll see Military Ministry there. We have a definition of veteran champion. I have a quiz there to give you a general sense of where you are on the continuum. What more could you be doing to become a veteran champion?
Hugh: What are the traits of a successful ministry? I know from the military, having been there, there is a process or procedure for everything.
Kathy: This is a grassroots thing. There is minimal structure, and the structure evolves from the people involved. What I think a successful military ministry looks like is people keep coming back. It could be two people; it could be 10 people. Also, they are bringing their friends.
This last weekend, we had three new people: a young gentleman suffering terribly from PTSD, his mom brought him. We had a combat veteran who just came to Christ, and he brought another combat veteran who is going through a divorce and exploring his faith. We had a female nurse who had been a flight nurse and retired years and years and years ago. If people are curious, if people are connecting with each other, if they are- We had one gentleman who struggled with PTSD for 20 years. He was isolating for a year. He was a pastor struggling with PTSD. He found out about Mighty Oaks in residence program through the healing power of Christ from another member of our military ministry. People supporting one another. People wanting to serve together. The pastor asking questions and inviting us to participate in other events that are happening at the church.
It boils down to how are people supporting one another? Ours is all about fellowship. Are people engaged? It’s hard to measure how we prevented this or prevented that. You can see, measure, and feel the connectivity and resources that people are pursuing to help them heal. That is really what it looks like.
The pastor is critical in this. Being supportive and maybe being willing to offer you an opportunity to show a video on Veterans’ Day or Armed Forces’ Day. Maybe being willing to have a quick panel discussion about how the congregation can be involved in Veterans’ Day. Maybe allowing the veterans to create a wall of honor, to put pictures of all the people who have served or are serving. Encouraging the veterans in the military ministry to create a special part of a Veterans’ Day celebration. Let them take ownership. Let the veterans in your congregation take ownership and do something special in front of the people that they love and worship with all the time. That’s what really makes me tick.
Hugh: It’s almost like the veterans are invisible. I find that local charities and churches who are doing ministries outside of their walls, who are reaching out, are much more successful than those who wait for people to come to them.
Kathy: Can’t do that.
Hugh: You have piqued my appetite for this whole project. We are coming to the end of this really helpful interview. This is a paradigm shift, like I promised. There are things you don’t know. You think you do, but no, you don’t. This is an energy field that we need to do in our country.
Kathy: We do. Thank you.
Hugh: As we’re leaving, do you have a tip or comment or challenge you want to leave people with?
Kathy: Please consider how you can contribute to the healing of people who have served in the military. The wounds are there, whether they’re spoken about or not. It doesn’t mean that it’s PTSD. It could be loneliness. It could be being discouraged. Simple human needs.
Please be on the lookout for volunteers in your congregation who have a passion for military-connected people, who maybe have some personal experience with a loss of their own or recovery of their own. Develop that volunteer. Encourage that volunteer. Start small with something that the volunteer is comfortable with.
I offer a monthly coaching call the first Sunday of every month called Military Ministries Matters. Vanguard Veteran will come alongside those volunteer leaders and equip them and encourage them and support them to stick their neck out and do this. This work can be a little bit scary, especially if you haven’t been in combat.
For instance, my pastor knew one person who he thought might be interested in this. The three of us—the pastor, a sailor, and me—got together. That first meeting, the sailor told me he’d deployed multiple times. 21 of his comrades had committed suicide. Oh my gosh. I had an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. I have never even known anybody who committed suicide, let alone lost 21 of my battle buddies to suicide. What can I possibly have to offer that person?
Well, lean on your own faith. Lean on your leadership skills. Take the first step. Get out there and do something. Bring people together. You will be amazed at the magic that evolves. How God will provide and help you do great things for people and help transform lives. I believe potentially even curbing veteran suicide.
Hugh: Kathy Gallowitz, thank you for this powerful message today.
Kathy: Thank you for your interest and for being a veteran champion.
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