There is a strange tension one can experience when visiting military cemeteries. Having gone to school in Gettysburg, attended funerals in Arlington and visited Normandy this past year, I’ve learned to better recognized the emotional reaction evoked, especially in those of us who are veterans. These cemeteries embody a serene order that on the surface has a certain beauty but still reflect a tragic loss of human life born out of the utter horror of war.

Americans stop to honor this sacrifice annually on Memorial Day celebrated the last Monday in May. For pastors, it is one of two times on the calendar where it is helpful to think about how to minister specifically to military veterans.

Caring for patriots

Titus 2:1-10 is critical to understanding the need for generational roles in discipleship and congregational life. Unfortunately, in way too many of our churches, we develop intra-generational ministry separating everyone into their demographics instead of inter-generational ministry as Scripture calls for. Pastors can magnify this problem when it comes to the congregation’s attitude toward patriotism. Several times I have heard pastors regret the pain they caused older members by suggesting it was time to remove the American flag from the sanctuary. Generations are separated as the suggestion seems practical to the younger members, only to be met head on by the older members with an attitude of “Not on my watch.”

But I have also see in these same churches loving pastors who balance both the mission of the church to the nations, and the sense of a congregation’s loyalty to their nation. One of the most common ways is to acknowledge military veterans (and often their spouses) on the Sundays that precede Veterans Day in November and Memorial Day in May.

Often veterans are asked to stand so that the congregation can recognize them. The problem is these are two different holidays that acknowledge and pay tribute to two different aspects of our military history. The first acknowledges those who have served in the military, while the latter pays tribute to those who have lost their lives in service to the country. For a long time this has, frankly been a distinction without a difference. However as someone who lives and works within the community and culture of veterans, I want pastors to know how this is changing.

A subtle shift

Without speculating on why, I have noticed a subtle shift in the veteran community’s attitude toward Memorial Day. Where older veterans have not been concerned with a distinction between the two holidays, younger veterans are. I have seen friends from the military services specifically put messages on social media expressing how they are uncomfortable they are receiving gratitude on Memorial Day and in some cases even reacting angrily when thanks were offered.

Speaking directly as a veteran, I would ask pastors and congregants to understand that we acknowledge your appreciation for the years of service paid by veterans over the past two decades. However please understand that many of us who served since 9/11 have are very aware and thankful that we made it home. Most of us know someone who did not. Within 24 hours of arriving in Baghdad on my first deployment I learned that a friend had just been killed by an IED.

Additionally, many of us have friends who made it home, but lost their lives to the invisible injuries of war. Veteran culture has a strong ethic for honoring the fallen before we accept honor ourselves. To accept your praise on the Memorial Holiday can be viewed by some veterans as robbing honor from our brothers and sisters. Older veterans likely see standing for Memorial Day as paying tribute to those left behind, but many of us experience guilt for stealing from those we love.

What to do?

I understand if you think writing on the topic of a simple tribute on a Sunday morning is making a mountain out of a mole-hill. (Of course, I would invite you to remove the American flag from your sanctuary and see what happens.) But I want pastors to know about this shift within what is likely a minority culture in the local congregation. Those of us who served in uniform and our families are part of a specific culture and thinking about Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day offers a great opportunity to think of ways pastors can serve their vets, not only these two Sundays but year-round. Let me offer three practical ideas:

  1. Get personal. Perhaps the most specific, practical recommendation I can make is to approach each holiday as a unique opportunity. Veterans Day is a great time to publicly thank service members, and Memorial Day is a great time to personally thank them. Find the vets after your Sunday service and speak to them one-on-one. Teach your congregation to do the same. I think you will find them encouraged when you acknowledge the day and the loss they likely feel over someone specific from their time in the service.
  1. Leave the door open. Veterans, especially older ones, are unlikely to talk about their experiences. But it’s still worth asking. Ask veterans if you can spend some time listening to what they did in the service. It doesn’t need to be war-time service, but the story will likely be worth the cost of a cup of coffee. It’s rare to find a good pastor who is not also a student of history, and these men and women have a history to tell.
  1. Link us together. Which brings us back to Titus. Veteran culture tends to create a closed community, complete with our own language (usually made of acronyms). So teach us, like Paul told Titus, to care for each other. Find the one veteran you can disciple and train him or her to care for the others. Over time as they care for each other, you will find them more open and caring toward the rest of your congregation.