Chaplain and ordained minister Dr. John Wheatley (’80) shares about his time an Army chaplain, why he’s passionate about training the next generation of chaplains and what the ministry means to him.
Dr. John Wheatley (’80) is a retired United States Army chaplain and an adjunct professor in Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School’s doctor of ministry in chaplaincy studies. Why chaplaincy? He says he first sensed a call into ministry, even from a young age. With his budding interest in ministry only growing, he turned to the pastor of his Methodist church in Cambridge, Maryland when it came time to apply to colleges. Pastor Norman Poultney took Wheatley on a three hour drive to a little Bible college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Back then, Lancaster Bible College used to do same-day acceptance with a completed application,” Wheatley noted. “I was accepted that day and headed off for classes in the fall.”
Wheatley graduated in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in Bible and a minor in pastoral studies. Shortly thereafter, he worked at several different churches in New Jersey in a variety of positions. During this time, he also became an ordained minister with the Methodist church, earned his Master of Divinity from Eastern Baptist Seminary and got married to his wife of 37 years, Suzanne (Gervin ’82) Wheatley. He eventually was appointed to a Methodist church outside of Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey with a congregation that served military families. It was that experience – interacting with and ministering to families in the military – that led him to become a chaplain. “That was when I first felt a spark of interest in chaplaincy,” he said. “We were at a picnic with some members of our church. That day, two different military families told me, ‘You’re the type of person who would do well in chaplaincy.’ And that’s how it started.”
Wheatley applied to the Army and was accepted in 1990. His career in both the Army Reserves and later as an active duty chaplain have taken him literally around the globe to places like Korea, Afghanistan, Germany and Kuwait. Wheatley had this to say about his ministry as a chaplain: ‘’Chaplaincy represents the living church being present in places, and at times, so often neither known or accessible to anyone else but a chaplain- where God’s grace and hope are so critically needed” he explained. “The Army Chaplain Corps says it well: ‘We bring Soldiers to God, and God to Soldiers!’”
While chaplaincy can be exciting, it can be very emotionally draining and spiritually challenging. Chaplains are often among the first responders to severe and traumatic situations – on battlefields, in hospitals – or standing by families as they watch the bodies of their loved ones arrive on American soil. Wheatley’s last four years of active service were spent at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, serving as the liaison chaplain doing just that. Each experience he’s had like this – standing alongside grieving families – which he’s done hundreds of times – is sobering. “Imagine standing on an airstrip at four in the morning on a cold Mother’s Day as you watch your son come home that way,” he said. “Or imagine hearing a child tearfully cry out her daddy’s name while witnessing such an event in a midnight downpour. Those experiences give depth to what is described in the Old Testament as the wailing. It is a lingering memory that touches the depth of the soul. It changes a person’s life forever!”
As you can imagine, Wheatley has witnessed some truly tragic events in his role as a chaplain. In fact, while serving as the chaplain in Washington, D.C., he was deployed to the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. “When I arrived, there was still smoke billowing out of the building and people were scrambling everywhere,” he said. “I could even see the tail of the plane sticking out of the impact site.” Wheatley was assigned as the chaplain for an emergency response team, which meant he was there to care for the people on the ground, and watched as the horrifying situation unfolded. “I was focused on the rescuers as they came out of the building and their condition,” he explained. “People were in shock. Mostly, we were there to be a sense of presence to these people in a time of crisis.” Chaplains, explained Wheatley, served a powerful role in the very ministry of presence. “We were there to especially represent God’s presence, grace, and dignity with the recovery of remains at the Pentagon site,” he said. Wheatley recounted the day after 9/11 when President George Bush came to the impact site at the Pentagon. “He walked by and saw the cross on my beret and then stopped to ask how I thought folks there were doing,” he remembered. “President Bush then pressed into the gathering embracing those present, and offering a strong sense of resolve and comfort.”
While a chaplain’s role is to minister to people in some extremely intense and devastating situations, chaplains themselves can become traumatized by witnessing continued human tragedy, loss and grief. “When we are thrown into the middle of it, we do what we have been called and trained to do,” he said. “We call upon resources that we have in our skills but most importantly, our spiritual resources. We do what we’re called do in the moment, and then when the moments have passed, we try to decompress and process.” Wheatley also mentioned the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive community and choosing to look for the good in the midst of it all. “I’m a big believer in the words of the Nazi concentration camps survivor, Victor Frankl, who said, “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. I have a choice about my response to what has just happened. It’s also incredibly important to have Christian friends and colleagues to talk to as we try to decompress all of that.”
It’s that wisdom, insight and practical advice that makes Wheatley an invaluable asset to the college’s Chaplaincy program – and his students are grateful for it. “From my bachelor’s degree to the doctor of ministry program, LBC has been instrumental to my ministry as a founding church pastor, to my work as a chaplain in the local hospital,” said Kevin Orie (‘19), doctoral candidate at LBC. “The teaching has always been relevant and has put me past the curve in ministry. This program has put me in an advanced status in my work as a hospital chaplain. The concepts introduced by the hospital chaplaincy program were already studied in my doctoral work! Chaplain Wheatley and Chaplain Ross have been tremendous assets to me outside of the classroom.”