I inherited a few traditions early in my ministry that were common in southern rural churches.
These included giving carnations to mothers on Mother’s Day, inviting members to walk forward to put their “birthday offering for the children’s home” in the little white church atop the upright piano, and asking veterans to stand and be recognized and applauded at the beginning of the worship service on Veterans Day weekend.
All these traditions changed through the years. But it was after I began listening to veterans that I upgraded the way I approach Veterans Day as a pastor.
Veterans Day, which is set aside to express gratitude to those who have served in our nation’s armed forces, is observed annually on Nov. 11.
When Veterans Day falls on a Saturday (as it does this year), the federal holiday is scheduled for the prior Friday. If Veterans Day falls on Sunday, then Monday is designated as the federal holiday.
I mention those dates just to clarify that the federal holiday known as Veterans Day is never calendared for a Sunday.
Although Veterans Day is never observed on Sunday, there is an unwritten, time-honored expectation in many congregations that veterans will be “honored” in the Sunday service nearest to Veterans Day.
While I have been blessed to serve churches with dedicated and decorated veterans, four of the churches I have served were located near major military bases. So, I have been honored to serve alongside an extraordinarily high number of veterans, active and retired.
The tradition in most of the congregations I served was to ask veterans to stand and be recognized on the Sunday nearest to Veterans Day.
While some would debate the appropriateness of recognizing veterans at church, I have taken the position that we should seize every opportunity to express genuine appreciation to veterans.
I resonate with the words of Maya Angelou who declared, “How important it is to recognize and celebrate our heroes and our she-roes.”
However, such recognitions should carefully and intentionally be planned to enrich, not divert, disrupt or distract our experience of worshipping God.
To more clearly understand the things that help veterans to feel affirmed and appreciated for their service, I did a daring thing: I asked them.
Interestingly, after taking several senior adults to Branson, Missouri, where the veterans were recognized at some point in almost every show, I overheard a veteran say, “I wish they wouldn’t do that.”
This began an ongoing conversation with veterans about the things that help them feel affirmed and appreciated about their years of service. I was surprised at their answers.
A few of the veterans said they preferred not to talk about the war or to be recognized at all for their military service. Their memories were too painful and attempts at recognition only reminded them of their friends who did not return, friends they deemed to be the true heroes.
But most said they didn’t mind the recognitions, but added that many attempts at expressing gratitude are just too shallow. When I asked what they meant by “shallow,” they said that such recognitions are based on applause prompted by someone on a podium or at a pulpit.
They confessed that they felt more genuinely appreciated when an individual, not necessarily an applauding crowd, would take the initiative to say, “Thank you for your service” or would sit with them to visit and ask, “Could you share a little of your story?”
From these conversations, I upgraded the way I emphasized Veterans Day. Here are a few suggestions for helping members of our congregations to express a deeper sense of gratitude to our veterans:
1. Offer a brief, genuine and specific moment of recognition from the pulpit prior to worship, perhaps saying, “Today as we prepare to worship, we express our gratitude to all of those in our congregation who have served in our nation’s military. Your service enables us to enjoy many freedoms, especially the freedom to gather to worship this morning.”
2. Invite members of the congregation to personally “thank” or write “thank-you notes” to veterans during the week of Veterans Day.
3. Encourage members to listen to the stories of veterans, stories they are likely to find informative and inspiring.
4. You may even propose that parents arrange for their children to interview a veteran, maybe asking about the most memorable moments in their years of service.
5. Consider interviewing a veteran during the worship service about how their faith strengthened and sustained them during his or her military career.
6. Enlist veterans as worship leaders to share Scriptures, prayers, songs or brief testimonies on the Sunday nearest to Veterans Day.
7. Visit a disabled veteran or a veteran in a care facility. Many such veterans have few or no family members who visit.
8. Ask members to consider becoming an advocate for a veteran, helping them enlist for services at a VA Clinic or providing transportation for them to get groceries or get to medical appointments.
9. With permission, weave the personal story of a veteran into the fabric of the sermon, focusing on stories that foster courage, underscore hope or promote peace.
10. Plan a communion and prayer service on Sunday evening, where the church prays for all active duty military personnel, and families are invited to call the name of their family members who are actively serving and then light a candle in their honor. For example, our church did this during Operation Desert Storm.
The Sunday nearest Veterans Day can be an optimal time to help a congregation more deeply appreciate those who have served our country with dedication and valor. And a good place to begin is by listening to a veteran.
Barry Howard serves as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches, a pastoral counselor with the Faith and Hope Center. He is member of the Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors and recently retired as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida. His writings also appear on his blog, Barry’s Notes. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a three-part series for Veterans Day 2017. Columns by Meredith Stone and Chuck McGathy will appear on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.