FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) -- This fall, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor John Laing will trade in his academic regalia for a military uniform. He will join approximately 3,600 citizen-soldiers in the 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team as part of the largest Texas Army National Guard deployment since World War II.
Lt. Col. Laing, who serves as assistant professor of systematic theology and philosophy at Southwestern’s Houston campus, will serve as the senior chaplain for the brigade during the yearlong mission. The unit will spend nine months overseas most likely in Iraq, although the troops may be redirected to Afghanistan if needed. With Iraqis preparing for national elections in early 2010, the 72nd will serve to aid the country during the change to self-governance.
“Our current mission involves managing the transition of authority to the Iraqi government and security forces,” Laing said. Their headquarters will be the commanding control for the International Zone, sometimes referred to as the Green Zone, where troops will handle detainee operations and convoy security.
Laing, whose military career spans 23 years and two previous deployments, will provide guidance and supervision over the chaplains within the brigade and serve as an expert on religious issues in the area of operations. Stephen Missick, one of the chaplains under his supervision, graduated from Southwestern in May and was commissioned in a ceremony following the commencement. Laing has had the privilege of knowing Missick as both a student in his classroom as well as a chaplain’s assistant within the Texas Army National Guard.
“My primary responsibility is to provide the spiritual care for the soldiers assigned to the brigade,” Laing said.
“Beyond that, I’m also an advisor on ethical, moral and spiritual issues to the brigade commander.”
During previous deployments, he served as a liaison between commanding officers and local religious leaders such as Muslim Imams and other clerics.
Laing’s journey to faith started shortly after he enlisted in the Army at the age of 17. During Basic Training, he began attending chapel through the encouragement of some of his fellow soldiers.
“Basic Training breaks down the pride, so that contributes to one’s receptivity of the Gospel,” Laing said.
When he returned home from Basic Training, he began visiting churches in various denominations. He began reading the Bible on his own and found himself at a point where he wanted to believe its message but felt he could not.
“So, I prayed to a God I wasn’t sure existed and asked Him to help me believe,” Laing said. “And as I continued to read the Bible and pray and go to different churches to worship, over the course of 3 months or so, I went from not believing to believing.
“When people ask me when how I got saved, I say that I honestly believe it was through the work of the Holy Spirit through the reading of God’s word that faith came. I became receptive to God’s work in my life through Basic Training and that time period in my life, but I’d say I got saved through just reading God’s word and the Holy Spirit convincing me of it’s truth.”
Soon after his conversion, Laing began sharing his newfound faith with fellow soldiers. As reconnaissance scouts, his unit rarely saw chaplains. Eventually, he began leading worship services for his platoon, and over a two-year span, about 90 percent of his 30-man unit became Christians.
Sensing God’s call to ministry, he served for a year as a chaplain’s assistant. Since that time, he has served as a chaplain in the National Guard in North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Texas.
With experience as a soldier as well as chaplain on two previous deployments, Laing believes God has uniquely prepared him for his current responsibilities. Laing served overseas in Kosovo during Operation Joint Guardian and at home during Operation Noble Eagle as part of post-9/11 duties for the Department of Homeland Security.
When asked how his present deployment compares to previous ones, Laing said, “Honestly, I think the biggest one is the stress of a legitimate combat environment will create more situations where counseling might be necessary.”
Laing was initially surprised by the great need for counseling soldiers during deployments but realizes many of them are coping with personal issues back home. Marriage difficulties have proven to be the most prevalent.
“The greatest need for prayer, apart from the salvation of our soldiers, is for their marriages,” Laing said.
“Deployment is very difficult on marriages. Even combat issues notwithstanding, when we were in Kosovo, I would say a fair estimate would be that roughly 40 percent of the people who were married had some kind of marriage difficulties over the course of the year that we were overseas. And that’s a pretty significant number.
“So I do a lot of marriage counseling, and, of course, in doing counseling, I can bring my faith in and share with them how faith in Christ can transform the marriage relationship, and, of course, consequently, their own life—they can receive salvation and forgiveness.
“The chapel service is certainly a very important part of my ministry, but I’ve come to realize that counseling is another way of being able to share my faith with soldiers who will not come to chapel but, when they’re desperate, will come talk to a chaplain. When someone does want counseling, they feel more comfortable talking to a chaplain than a psychiatrist or a psychologist. … Even a secular person, an atheist or a Wiccan may come to me for counseling, which gives me the opportunity to counsel them according to my faith.”
Laing is currently writing a book about the theological concerns that evangelical chaplains encounter, such as praying in Jesus’ name, evangelism, legal issues, and the growth of liberal theology and religious pluralism in chaplaincy. The basic question he seeks to answer is, “Can evangelicals continue to serve as chaplains without compromising their commitments?” He believes they can but also notes there are some legitimate areas of concern that must be addressed.
Laing appreciates the prayers and encouragement for him and his family. Recognizing the difficulties associated with being separated from his wife and three children for nearly a year, he trusts in the Lord’s sovereignty and seeks to serve God and country as he offers hope amidst the crucible of combat.