Some people feel they are called to serve country. Others are called to serve God. Shani Hartley discovers that Rev. Greg McConnell is called to serve both.
A gun toting minister of religion is not what you would expect to find on Sydney’s North Shore. Rev. McConnell doesn’t carry a gun around the streets of Sydney but when he is called by the RAAF to minister to its members in the Middle East he readily responds. Sitting in a small and non-descript office adjoining Turramurra Uniting Church, 47 year old Rev. McConnell fills the room with his mere presence. He sits forward in his chair, inviting conversation as he looks at you with sincerity and an open honesty. His greying hair suggests wisdom and leadership. It is easy to picture him having a friendly chat with members of the RAAF.
The RAAF and Rev. McConnell have had a long association. For fourteen years, one day a week, he ministered at Richmond Air Base. Then in 2005 he had a stint in Iraq where he was close enough to the action to be required to carry a side-arm. He has now just returned from his second tour of duty. This time he was at a remote air base somewhere in the Middle Eastern desert, approximately 40 kilometres from a large city. The specific location is classified. Rev. McConnell described it as a place where “hard tough young boys with tattoos” passed through on their way to and from Afghanistan. He didn’t carry a weapon on this trip but needed to be “competent and proficient” at firing a rifle accurately over 300 metres. “We had to do weapons handling tests every week and I’m not very good at that. It was a bit of a thing to watch the chaplain do his weapons handling test and have a bit of a laugh.” He sees no conflict between being Christian and being part of the war effort, “I’m not a combatant. I’m not going to use that weapon in a way that is offensive.”
Rev. McConnell has always felt accepted by RAAF personnel and believes troop commanders particularly appreciate having someone else dealing with the grievances of their charges. The troops themselves welcome his concern for their well-being. On the base there were approximately 170 Australians, “ordinary people from nineteen years of age to 61 years of age and everything in between, married, single, de facto, straight and gay, all kinds of people, Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people, just a slice of Australian society picked up and dumped in this place to do this job, and I really liked them all.” Rev. McConnell spent his days visiting the various work sections, talking with the troops as they went about their work. Individuals could arrange private appointments and two or three occurred each day. At night he participated in recreational activities such as billiards and volleyball, almost as one of the troops, the difference signified by the black cross on his uniform. Mostly he listened to struggles with relationships and family issues, or anything else involving difficulties, pain, stress or loss.
[Two anecdotes removed out of respect for the privacy of the people involved.]
In the RAAF the Chaplain is called Padre. Padre is his name and title, they are one. There is no segregation of person and duty. Back home his role and identity are somewhat separated in comparison. In real life he is called upon as a husband, a father, a friend, a member of a soccer team and as the Minister of his congregation. Often the roles conflict. For instance, friends have taken issue with his role in the controversial war but Rev. McConnell is adamant that God is for all people. “I strongly believe who our state sends [to war] deserves ministry.” The people at Turramurra Uniting Church strongly supported his call to the Middle East, partly as their ongoing desire to be in touch with community but also because of a prevailing conservative attitude backing Australia’s military efforts. Upon his return, Rev. McConnell assured the congregation that it was “not a particularly dramatic story,” that he wasn’t shot at and he “had a great time” just doing what he underrates as “ordinary stuff.”
Rev. McConnell believes God calls all people to Him and people respond in a variety of ways. Some deliberately turn their back, some choose not to listen but some are called to a life of discipleship. There are many struggles with being called to serve God and Rev. McConnell feels in an increasingly secular culture he is often seen as an anachronism. “People rarely feel burdened by sin,” he says. He thinks people feel unease and have regrets and guilt but do not associate them with God or the church.
One of the detriments of being a minister is that he constantly feels he has to live up to expectations of people and that can be difficult, particularly when is he is drained spiritually and emotionally. On the other hand he finds the best part of being in ministry is the relationships, although, he muses, they tend to be one-sided.
Rev. McConnell has been called at several points in his life. He answered a call to become a Christian at the age of fourteen. As a young adult, he answered a call to undertake ministry as a vocation. He entered theological college at the age of 22 and was 25 years old when he was ordained at St Andrews, Parramatta. Two years later he was called to be a RAAF Chaplain. After Parramatta he moved to Eastwood Uniting Church and for the last two years has been Minister of Turramurra Uniting Church. “I do believe I am serving God [and] that ultimately the Gospel, the message of Jesus, the person of Jesus, is the only hope for wholeness and healing in the world.”
Defence Force Recruiting, AIR FORCE Chaplain, retrieved 25 March 2009 <www.defencejobs.gov.au/airforce/jobs/Chaplain>
Dominguez, Maria 2005, ‘Chaplains care for lives on the line’, Insights, Uniting Church of Australia, Synod of NSW and ACT, August 2005, retrieved 25 March 2009, <http://insights.uca.org.au/ministryprofiles/a-z/0508-military-chaplains.htm>
Field, Colonel Chris (Australian Army) 2008, ‘Twenty-First Century Chaplains and their Role in the Australian Defence Force: Leaders, Innovative and Tough’, Australian Defence Force Journal, Department of Defence, Canberra, No.177, 2008, pp110-113, retrieved 28 March 2009 <www.adfjournal.adc.edu.au/UserFiles/issues/177%202008%20Nov_Dec.pdf>
Jamieson, Corporal Cameron 2005, ‘Angels of the Desert’, Air Force News, Vol.47, No.20, retrieved 25 March 2009, <www.defence.gov.au/news/raafnews/EDITIONS/4720/features/feature01.htm>
McConnell, Greg 2009, God of Grace, Sermon at Turramurra Uniting Church, 22 March 2009, 9:00am [MP3], retrieved 25 March 2009 <http://www.turramurra.unitingchurch.org.au/sermons>