Last Updated on May 6, 2024 by OCF Communications

There are only three things in my life that I have been certain about.

First, I knew that marrying my wife, Tracy, was a part of God’s purpose for my life. I have never doubted that she was the right person and that marrying her the day after my college graduation was the right time.

Second, I have never questioned that God called me to be an Army Chaplain. After serving on active duty for 26 years I can say that the Army was very good to me, and that God showed his favor to me and my family countless times.

Third, after retiring from the Army I had the amazing privilege of serving as the Chaplain to the Corps of Cadets at my alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute. Next to my family, serving at VMI has been the greatest blessing of my life.

Recently, we sensed the Lord leading us into our next phase of life and ministry. So, in June of 2023 we became full-time RVers. We have traveled around the country reconnecting with each other, visiting our family, seeing old friends, and exploring new places.

It has been a great experience and everything we hoped for. Along the way we have met some fantastic people, made some new friends, and learned some unexpected things. We also adopted a new philosophy that “Ministry is Life and Life is Ministry” (borrowed from Seth Barnes).

With that in mind, we simply look for opportunities to share our faith with the people we meet and to be encouragers. Like George Müller, we seek to display that God is real, He is trustworthy, and He answers prayer. Though it is unlike the very structured ministry of the chaplaincy, it has been refreshing and reassuring that this is where the Lord wants us for this time.

One of the most memorable experiences I have had was at the Badlands National Park. As we pulled into our campsite, I immediately saw the camper next to ours. It was clear from the license plate, bumper sticker, and flag, that the family was a very proud U.S. Marine family. By the “grown-up toys” they were hauling and their jacked-up Jeep, I imagined the owner was a rugged outdoors manly-man. Stereotypical Marine.

As we set up our rig, I got a glimpse of my new neighbor. He was exactly what I had envisioned. Big, burly. A bit intimidating. Even from a distance I could see he had a commanding presence. By his age I could tell he was retired but I could also tell that retirement had little impact on his level of physical fitness (unlike me).

It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I actually spoke with him. As he was walking by, we struck up a conversation. We exchanged the typical small talk. He and his family were from Virginia. He spent a career in the Marine Corps and retired as a Sergeant Major. I told him I spent 26 years in the Army.

I will never forget what happened next. He asked me what I did in the Army. When I told him I was a Chaplain, his demeanor immediately changed. His eyes welled with tears. His voice quivered a bit. He simply said, “A Chaplain?” It was kind of a statement and a question at the same time. I could tell that though he was standing in the Badlands, his heart and mind had been instantly transported elsewhere.

He looked me in the eye and said, “I cannot begin to tell you how much my chaplain helped me and my guys in Iraq.” His sincerity and transparency were unquestionable. He stepped forward, hugged me, and whispered, “Thank you, Chaplain.”

Clearly, I was receiving the affection and recognition deserving of a Navy Chaplain whom I have never met. It was a powerful moment for both of us. Almost sacred.
I sensed that this rugged warrior and combat veteran was a little embarrassed by his unexpected display of emotion and he intentionally curtailed the rest of our conversation.

He once again said thank you, then he turned and walked back to his rig. I stood there for a moment trying to process what just happened, and wondering what, if anything, I should do.

I sensed the Lord’s presence in that moment. I was humbled and thanked God that He put me in that place; I sensed that my new friend needed this encounter to help him on his journey of healing, wholeness, and faith.

It also made me wonder if the Navy Chaplain who so vividly and quickly came into the Sergeant Major’s mind has any idea of the impact his ministry had on this old Marine. I wonder if he did know, how might that help him heal his own wounds and bring wholeness and deeper faith to him. If that Chaplain knew the impact he had, would he be refreshed, encouraged, or affirmed?

This encounter also reminded me of a conversation I had over thirty years ago. At the time I was a young Field Artillery Lieutenant, trying to discern God’s call to seminary and to the chaplaincy. I had been having conversations with my Battalion Chaplain, CH(CPT) Tom Kilgore. Tom was a spiritual giant in my eyes and someone I aspired to be like. The Lord used Tom more than any other person to confirm my calling to the chaplaincy and to influence me to trust God and to step out in faith.

I vividly remember Tom telling me the unique aspects of the chaplaincy. He told me that chaplain ministry is crisis ministry. No one calls the chaplain to tell him that their life is great. In fact, it’s just the opposite almost 100% of the time.

The chaplain gets called when there is a crisis, and the soldier has exhausted all his/her resources and needs help. Often the crisis is intense, and the soldier is so focused on resolving the problem that he/she is unable to hear any spiritual guidance the chaplain provides. The chaplain steps in as best as he can, walks a portion of the journey with the soldier, and tries to help resolve the crisis. Given the transient nature of the military, it is not long before the chaplain or the soldier moves on.

The nature of their relationship is short, focused on a very specific concern, and often limited to this one crisis.

Here’s what Tom told me: “If you are the kind of minister who needs affirmation in your ministry, or you need to develop long-term relationships with people so that you can see the fruits of your ministry, then the chaplaincy is not for you.” He said there will be many times when you will not know if you made any positive impact.

In fact, there will be many times when you won’t even know if the soldier was able to fully resolve the crisis.

For this reason, you must be certain of your calling to the chaplaincy and this unique ministry. Holding firmly to your calling may be the only assurance that you will get through the tough times. It may be the only way of knowing that you are where the Lord wants you.

I have reflected on Tom’s words many times throughout my career. When I was deployed, when I was tired, discouraged, missing my family, uncertain, or doubting, Tom’s wise words about being sure of my calling were the reminder I needed. It was the source of great strength. It helped me through my own crises. It turned my eyes back to the Father and away from myself.

That old Marine Sergeant Major I met in Badlands was deeply impacted by his chaplain in Iraq. That chaplain may never realize the impact he made. I hope that he does know, or that sometime in the future he will. But more importantly, I hope that he is so sure and confident in his calling that it doesn’t really matter. I hope that his affirmation comes primarily from being obedient to the call God placed on his life.

If you’ve had a chaplain walk with you through a crisis or a dark time in your life, offer a short prayer of thanksgiving to God. Thank Him for the calling He placed on that chaplain’s life and for the faithfulness of the chaplain to be willing to fulfill this kind of ministry. Pray for that chaplain. Pray for the chaplain’s family. Pray that they never doubt the calling the Lord placed on their life.

To all my brothers and sisters who have answered God’s calling to chaplaincy— those who go to the ugly places that the church and pastors cannot go, who commit to a ministry dominated by crisis, whose families are required to sacrifice because emergencies, accidents, and deaths call them away from home at the most inconvenient times—from this old soldier, THANK YOU. You make a difference. I am proud and honored to have stood among your ranks.

CH(COL) Bob Phillips, USA (Ret.) is a 26-year active-duty veteran of the U.S. Army. After retiring from the Army he served seven years as the Chaplain to the Corps of Cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. He and his wife Tracy have been married 36 years, they have five children and seven grandchildren.