Does your congregation have military families? If you are like most congregational ministers, you may be aware of military families but may not have given them a second thought beyond ongoing prayer for safety. Military families are socialized to display strength, endurance, and resilience. If they struggle, they do so privately. Military families often “appear” to be healthy and happy, but the mental health challenges they face can often times be suppressed beneath the surface. Thus, in the busyness of ministry, you may not notice anything unusual in your interactions with them. For some ministers, deployment may be seen as an honorable long-term work assignment, not a significant contributor to stress, distress, and mental health struggles. Yet deployment of significant others may create many challenges for military families in your congregation.
First, a few facts:
Service to one’s country provides many challenges. On average, military families relocate 10 times more than non-military families, and average one move every 2-3 years. Most military spouses tend to be female and are under the age of 35. Since 2001, over 2 million American children have experienced the deployment of a parent, and over 900,000 children have experienced the deployment of one or both parents more than once. It should be no surprise that children in military families are more likely than civilian families to experience acute distress like anxiety or depression, with 1 in 4 military children having thought about suicide at least once. This not only affects children of military families but is associated with nearly 37% of military spouses receiving a mental health diagnosis during spousal deployment.
How can congregational ministers and congregations be pro-active and responsive to military families during deployment?
Wang et al. (2015) conducted research that discusses the difficulties families face as well as factors that support mental health and wellness. From this study, there are four responsive care practices that can help your congregation care for military families:
1. Create a physical place for military families.
- Having a physical location for military families to come to is important. This can be a specialized military family’s group like a potluck, game night, or other social event.
2. Create a relational space for families to experience belonging, control, and fulfillment.
- Opening opportunities for volunteering, service, or leadership is a great way to address core needs and psychologically vulnerable areas of belonging, control, and fulfillment.
3. Address the experience of isolation by assigning or pairing the military family with a pastor, leader, or other family.
- Be intentional in building a relationship, not just a routine check-in, with the family. The family needs authentic relationships that emotionally support, guide, and invest in their well-being.
4. Hold a service for lament.
- Military families struggle with the deployment of loved ones. By giving them the opportunity to express this struggle you are supporting the family’s mental health through communal social support and participation.
Wang, M.C., Nyutu, P. N., Tran, K. K., & Spears, A. (2015). Finding resilience: the mediation effect of sense of community on the psychological well-being of military spouses. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 37(2), 164.
* Learn more about congregational care practices on the ICTG Training page. Here, you will find dozens of resources, including the ICTG Congregational Assessment Guide, seminars on becoming trauma-informed, modules, forums, and more!
A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Joseph Kim Paxton is an ICTG Advisor while pursuing doctoral degrees in Practical Theology at the Claremont School of Theology and Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University. His current research areas include clinical-community psychology, pastoral care, social scientific approaches to biblical interpretation, group processes, spiritual struggle, coping, and attitudes.
Read all of Joe's blogs here.