This summer, Pastor Justin Fenger may be deployed out of the area as a military chaplain.
Fenger became the associate pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in March 2018, and has been a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 2011. However, his time with the Army National Guard goes back even farther.
He joined the Minnesota National Guard in 2006, at age 26. “It was something that I thought about in high school and throughout college,” he said. “When I went into the seminary, I was often met by chaplains that would sit in our narthex, kind of our welcome area, just outside the chapel, to explain what military chaplaincy was all about.”
As a student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Fenger often found himself sitting and talking with those chaplains. “By the sixth or seventh time I talked to an Army chaplain, I’m like, ‘You know, I probably should just do this.’”
He went to a recruiter and said he wanted to be an Army chaplain. “He looks at me and he goes, ‘I have no idea how to do that.’ But he goes, ‘I could make you a truck driver.’ I go, ‘Done.’”
Shortly after enlisting as a truck driver, Fenger was commissioned as a chaplain candidate. This allowed him to complete his seminary studies while gaining experience under the supervision of a military chaplain.
During the years since, he has served as a chaplain with the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry in Moorhead; transferred to the North Dakota National Guard and the 231st Brigade Support Battalion in Valley City; then moved to the the 141st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and, most recently, the 1st Battalion, 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment in Grand Forks.
Meanwhile, he also served “civilian soldiers” as a parish pastor in Oakes, N.D. and Alexandria, Minn. before coming to Park Rapids.
It is in the role of battalion chaplain for the 1-188th that he now faces the prospect of being deployed for the first time in his military career.
“Nothing’s ever for sure in the military until you have boots on the ground,” said Fenger, noting that he missed previous deployments due either to the timing of his transfers or to his unit being dropped off the manning roster of a planned deployment.
“I think any soldier that enlists, or joins our military ranks, does so with the intentionality that one day they will be deployed,” he said, “because they joined to want to do their job. So, this is the first opportunity for a full-scale, possible deployment for me.”
It arises as his full battalion is likely to be mobilized to Washington, D.C. – typically a time commitment of nine months to about a year. The 1-188th’s mission would be to guard the skies over the nation’s capital.
“I’ve spent 14 years in the military, and now I get to do my job,” he said. “Not to say that I didn’t do it before, but you’re trained to deploy. So, I’m excited about this opportunity to serve in my full capacity and to see what I can do.”
Balancing two ministries
Fenger said it has been easier to balance his chaplaincy with his pastoral work at Calvary than in his first two congregations.
“In those previous calls, I was a solo pastor,” he explained. “Meaning that there was nobody else to cover down. Here, I’m the associate pastor, so therefore, there’s still the lead pastor here (Rev. Stephen Norby) that has the ability to cover down when I’m not here.”
Fenger said recruiters traditionally say a Guardsman serves one weekend a month and two weeks a year. “The more you go up in rank, the less it’s likely to be true,” he said.
Today’s military demands more time for training to be ready to deploy than in the past, he said, noting that Sept. 11, 2001 changed the way the country uses its armed forces.
Fenger discussed his strategies for balancing parish work with Guard duties – such as stacking his pastoral schedule toward the first half of the week when a Guard weekend is coming, and taking turns preaching with Norby. He added that when he’s on drill and his pastoral care is needed back home, “most of the time, the military is flexible enough to let me split out” – and that flexibility extends both ways.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that having their pastor called up for perhaps a year’s duty is a challenge for a congregation. He said he has discussed this possibility with each of the congregations that called him.
Fenger said he is pleased to know that his absence will be covered, not only by Norby and other parish staff, but also by Calvary’s “phenomenal” lay leadership. He added they are hoping to appoint a member of the congregation as a “synodically authorized minister.”
What chaplaincy is about
Fenger said a chaplain’s duties are similar to being a pastor. But while staying faithful to the tenets of the ELCA as his “endorsing body,” he added, “You’re also there to provide for the support of other faith backgrounds. The chaplain is there to protect the soldiers’ First Amendment Right of freedom and exercise of religion, however they see fit.”
He said this means supporting all soldiers in maintaining their spiritual fitness, whatever that looks like to them. In addition, he can preach and lead worship in Protestant services.
The key to soldiers’ morale, he said, is maintaining their connections to each other and the folks at home. “Worship is a way that we connect with each other and, obviously, with God. The number one way we foster resilience in people is by making sure they don’t feel alone.”
He said serving as a National Guard chaplain has given him “exponential growth” in pastoral care skills, from trauma counseling to event planning and administrative work – “a lot of skills that you don’t necessarily get in the seminary, and a lot of times, takes you a long time to build up in the parish itself.”
He said this happens because “the military puts you in situations where you’re not comfortable,” while being given the tools to succeed and the support, encouragement and criticism of superior officers.
“I have always appreciated the military’s ability to build leaders,” he said.
Staying in touch
Soldier’s families aren’t allowed to move with them on a deployment. So Fenger’s wife, Katie, and their children will be staying behind. The couple has three daughters, ranging from 8 months to 7 years old.
“They are allowed to come out and visit,” he said, adding that internet technology will enable them to share facetime via devices with screens. “I’m very thankful for that.”
The same tech may also enable him to stay in touch with his congregation. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Fenger has been posting daily texts from the Moravian tradition for church members to read and pray together, even when they’re apart.
“It’s something that I’m looking to continue, even when I am potentially deployed,” he said, “And there’s been talk about maybe me giving a monthly sermon. We’re used to seeing people up on screen, and we’re OK with it.”
If deployed, Fenger said he’ll miss Calvary, the community and especially his family. He’ll feel bad about missing his daughters’ birthdays, but he hopes the youngest will take her first steps before he leaves.
Nevertheless, he said, “I know that the congregation and the community will do their best to help my family if issues arise.”