Ministry in the military

‘Give up your life’ is a column featuring stories about people who have decided to put Jesus first in their thinking and decision-making. In our first-ever instalment, Alison Payne shares the story of James and Sarah Leitch, and what they are doing in the military.

I am not sure how I came to be such good friends with James and Sarah since we have never lived in the same town. But I was involved with a ministry to Christians in the defence forces, and I met them when I went along to Fighting Words (—a conference aimed at encouraging and exhorting Christians in the forces. James was (and still is) in the military, and Sarah is very supportive of defence force activities.

Later that year, I went along to another conference—this time, for people considering Christian ministry. James and Sarah happened to be there too. At the time, I didn’t know a lot of people. But James and Sarah were familiar faces in the crowd. So I spent a lot of enjoyable time with them during the conference and, before too long, I was making weekend visits to Newcastle, their home town.

Since then, James and Sarah have encouraged me as a Christian. They have set me a great example of what it means to make gospel-minded decisions in ways that wouldn’t normally spring to mind.

When long service leave came around for James (which it does quite early if you are in the defence forces because your training and university study count towards it), he decided to do a version of the Ministry Training Strategy to gain experience in ministry. So he went to Canberra to work among defence cadets. He managed to get 12 months’ worth of leave by making a deal with his Directorate of Personnel: after that year, he would take a posting in the small inland city of Wagga Wagga. Now, nobody in the military wants to end up there—particularly if you’re a senior officer like James. It means the slow death of your military career.

In addition, nobody takes a posting for a lengthy amount of time because doing so severely limits the potential for promotion. But James and Sarah said at the outset that they’d give Wagga 10 years—a move regarded by most as vocational suicide.

Furthermore, James holds several awards and scholarships for academic performance, and Sarah has a PhD. Wagga has several training bases—an Air Force training school located 10 km outside of Wagga and the Army Recruit Training Centre in Kapooka. Each year, hundreds of young men and women move through these places doing training courses of various sorts. They are mostly ‘troops’ doing trades, not ‘officers’ (i.e. people with degrees). To the casual observer, Wagga and its troops could look like a waste of James and Sarah’s combined intelligence.

But James and Sarah had other reasons for going to Wagga: they went for the sake of the gospel. They wanted to establish a Christian presence on the training base, get in among the troops, run Bible studies and courses, open their home to others, and generally reach out to the mass of young people training in Wagga at a crucial time in their lives.

The thing about any sort of evangelistic ministry to the military is that you really do have to be in the military to do it. Many of the people doing these training courses live on the bases behind security gates, so you won’t find them when doorknocking after-hours. They are basically inaccessible to the usual full-time gospel worker. You can’t just walk onto a defence base and start a Bible study, or run a workplace or campus outreach event; you wouldn’t get through the gate, and even if you did, you probably wouldn’t understand the language they speak on the other side. People in the military live a lifestyle foreign to us civilians, and inhabit a subculture all their own.

That’s why it’s so valuable that James has stayed in the military, making sacrifices so that he can be more strategic for the sake of the gospel. His position gives him access, provides him with the means to live where these people are, and presents him with opportunities to empathize and enjoy camaraderie with the people he is seeking to reach. He has handed over his career to the cause of the gospel without leaving it. If he was offered a promotion now, it would mean either moving away from Wagga or taking up a job far less compatible with his ministry. Instead, he and Sarah are welcoming young troops into their lives, reaching out to the military wives and single women, opening up their house for barbecues and dessert nights, providing a home away from home and an alternative to the “pay fortnight booze up”, and raising their kids in Wagga Wagga.

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