The Rev. Greg Horn had already been the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield, Calif., for two years when he made the decision to enlist in the Navy Reserve and become part of the chaplain corps in 1988.
He saw it as a way of fulfilling his personal belief of putting what you preach about, in his case his emphasis on pastoral care, into practice.
“What I was looking to do in the Navy was to expand the opportunity to extend what I call prompt and pastoral care. I think young men and women in the Navy going out to sea around the world deserve the same access to competent pastoral care as the young people sitting in my congregation, so I saw it sort of as a mission outreach,” says Horn.
Parish ministry and military chaplaincy are somewhat different, Horn says.
“People coming to the parish in Bakersfield are expecting to hear the gospel and expecting you to help them solve their problems,” he explains. “The people on the ship or wherever are just going about their jobs when I show up around the corner and engage them in conversation, so there’s a different focus.”
When Horn enlisted, the military service obligation was the traditional reservist plan of one weekend a month and two weeks of active duty per year. It worked out fine for both Horn and the Westminster congregation and didn’t really take him away from his congregation any more than any other pastor who takes study leave or vacation.
“It seemed like an ideal fit for our pastor and our church,” says church member Claudia Keith. “Greg could supplement his modest salary while serving God and country, and our church could support a mission to young men and women that would have been beyond our scope otherwise.”
This arrangement worked out fine until the 2001 terrorist attacks led to war and, as Horn puts it, “it all went upside down.” It was no longer weekends and two weeks per year, but now it was that plus every single vacation day and study leave day, and in 2003, he was recalled to active duty for a year.
“The Iraqi war changed all of our lives dramatically,” says Keith. “Although Greg ensured that we were pastored well in his absence, suddenly the congregation experienced the sacrifice of our shared mission commitment.”
Because of the desperate need for chaplains in the Navy and especially in the Marines, Horn found himself rising through the ranks and taking on more responsibility, which took him away from his church even more. This change in the nature of his pastorate with Westminster did not happen without some growing pains.
“There were some that felt that I loved the Navy more than I loved the church,” says Horn. He found this was not uncommon among reserve chaplains suddenly being pressed into more active service. At one point he did a snapshot of attendees at a conference where he had about half the chaplaincy force and of the 230 chaplains present, 20 percent of Lieutenants and 50 percent of Captains had lost their parishes as a result of multiple recalls.
Westminster decided to stick with Horn, even through his absences, and renewed the commitment to him each year, but not everyone in the church was in agreement with this decision.
“We lost several members before Greg was elevated to Admiral…in effect they felt they weren’t getting their money’s worth because he wasn’t around enough,” said church member Ken Byrum.
“There were some who could not put aside their personal need to have a pastor who served in a more regular manner in order to support the mission he provided to the wider community and they left in protest or simply drifted away,” Keith adds. “In retrospect, we could have done a better job sharing with our congregation the impact that Greg was making in the lives of young sailors and their families.
It is the missional focus of Westminster, a focus Horn says has been in place since well before he joined the Navy, that he credits for the ability of the church to stay the course with him. Because of that rooted mission commitment, many members were able to stay with him and get past their own needs in order to allow him to take care of other people in need.
“I think the view of just about everybody in our church was that we certainly missed him when he was gone and there have been some sacrifices there, but when he’s here he’s working his tail off,” says Byrum. “In our case we kind of feel like we’ve sent our little brother off to war and he’s just done a magnificent job.”
Horn also credits digital technology with making the last few years of his dual service to the Navy and to Westminster go more smoothly. He’s able to keep in touch with members via e-mail and the internet and devotes several hours each evening after his Naval obligations to attending to church matters.
“The people most disturbed by not having the ability to come by the church any day of the week and see me were the people who never made the digital switch. We literally almost have a virtual office now,” says Horn.
He also found the time to attend to those matters that required his physical presence whenever possible.
“Amazingly, although he was heavily engaged in this last three-year stint, he was able, when he was called upon, to do a funeral or something to deal with the momentous occasions of folks in the church, he was able to be there,” says Byrum.
Horn retired from the Navy as a Rear Admiral on Sept. 23 of this year ― at a retirement service at the Washington Navy Yard that was attended by Keith and Byrum.
“Our view of it is that he served the Navy and the Marines with the same distinction that he served us, so we feel very proud of his service,” says Byrum.
He’s now adjusting to life serving just one congregation and Westminster can look forward to his regular presence once again.
“I always expected to leave the Navy. That’s why I wasn’t sad when I retired. I always expected to leave the Navy, but I expected to leave the Navy as a Lieutenant. I never expected to be promoted, ever. It just turned into something you would never even believe would happen,” says Horn.
“The whole point in the retirement ceremony was to tell the story of the church,” he adds. “I had medals and awards but it was really about saying thank you to the people who have been taking this walk with me for 25 years, my parish and my family.”
Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service from Statesville, N.C., where she serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.