When First Baptist Church, Wartburg, called Matt Ward as pastor three years ago, members knew what they were getting — a major in the United States Army who has been a chaplain in the Tennessee National Guard since 2011.
The church also knew they were getting a pastor who had to serve once a month for two days in the National Guard, be away for two weeks in the summer and could possibly be deployed overseas for a substantial length of time.
Though he could not have known it at the time, Ward would soon discover that the church that called him would support him unconditionally when that deployment call came.
Ward, who is beginning his 20th year of military service, returned to Tennessee in February from an 11-month (it originally was nine months) deployment to Kuwait where his chaplain responsibilities would take him to several countries during that time.
He returned to his congregation on March 6 with a day full of activities to celebrate his return.
Ward will always be grateful to FBC Wartburg for how they supported him and his family during the past year.
“The church was so gracious,” Ward said, noting they allowed the family, which includes his wife, Tara, and two sons, ages 8 and 12, to stay in the parsonage while taking care of everything from yard work to maintenance.
‘Never had to worry’
Ward said that most soldiers who are deployed have to arrange in advance to have their family provided for, or the spouse has to deal with it. “My family never had to worry about the yard or if the washing machine broke (and it did). Someone took care of it.”
While that should be the norm for any chaplain or pastor in the military, that is not always the case, Ward said. He personally knows a chaplain who was fired by his church while he was deployed. The chaplain had to return home and move his family out of the parsonage, Ward said, acknowledging that memory remained with him and caused him to wonder what would happen to his family should he be deployed in the future.
Instead, Ward said he has been blessed. He has served as pastor of only two churches — FBC Wartburg and West Cleveland Baptist Church in Cleveland.
Though he was not deployed while at West Cleveland, the church viewed his military service as part of their ministry, he said.
The Wartburg congregation followed suit.
“They took it as a challenge, knowing that they might have to send their pastor to the mission field, even if it happened to be with the military,” he said.
Vanessa Taylor, administrative assistant who served as the go between with Ward and the congregation while he was away, agreed.
“We just sent him on a long term mission trip, and we were going to support him while he was gone,” she said.
Not only did the church care for his family, they showered Ward with care packages not only for him, but also for the soldiers he was ministering to thousands of miles from home.
Prior to his employment, the church had been focusing on showing the love of Christ to people “in a practical way so they could feel it, hear it and see it,” Ward said.
“Over the past year I was on the receiving end (of those efforts),” he said. “It felt good.”
Ward was so moved by the church’s care and compassion that he nominated the church to receive the Department of Defense Pro Patria Award.
This award is given through the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. ESGR recognizes organizations that support members of the Guard and Reserve.
FBC Wartburg became the first church in Tennessee to receive the award and will represent the state on a national level in the small organizations category for the “Freedom Award.”
Ward told WATE-TV in Knoxville, “I thought, here I am, leaving for a year and a lot of employers, that’s a big deal for anybody but I thought, I’m the only fulltime employee of the church, and they’re okay with me leaving for a year. That’s a big deal.”
Jim Mungenast, vice chair operations for ESGR, told the Knoxville station, “What our committee tries to do is recognize those employers so when someone does get deployed, they’re not worried about their job, whether it’s going to be there when they get back.”
Ward also nominated seven people from the church to receive ESGR’s “Patriotic Employer Award” for “supporting employee participation” in the National Guard and Reserve.
Honored from First Baptist were the five deacons (Doyle Haynes, chairman, Alfred Branim, Jimmy Lloyd, Jamie Pemberton and George Wright), Vanessa Taylor and Doug White, who served as interim pastor while Ward was deployed.
White served as interim before Ward was called as pastor. Ward noted that when he shared with White about his deployment, White told him, “You can count on it. I will make sure I am available.”
During the March 6 service, Mungenast and Leslie Purser, Knoxville area ESGR chair, presented the church the Pro Patria Award and the seven individual awards.
“It has been very humbling, and it’s been very challenging and most of all, very rewarding to help him through this deployment,” said Taylor, who helped coordinate communications between Ward and the church during deployment and a variety of other tasks including helping to ship items to Kuwait.
“We were honored as a church to receive the award for supporting [Matt] while he was deployed,” said deacon Jamie Pemberton.
“We are thankful for all our military men and women whose service provides us the freedoms we have here in America. They are true heroes,” he said.
Not only did the church welcome their pastor home, but so has the community of Wartburg. When Ward was returning home, his wife was pulled over by a patrol car.
Ward, however, suspected something was up when his wife did not “panic.” Instead of a speeding ticket, he received a police escort through town with people lined up on the streets (including his son’s middle school basketball team) with signs welcoming Ward home. A few weeks later, signs are still up in some businesses in Wartburg.
“It was special to me and my family,” Ward acknowledged. He also noted that his welcome home provided a way for the church and community to let their light shine.
“A lot of people not affiliated with the church or the community have reached out to me as a result of the story being shared,” he said. “It warmed a few hearts and opened a few eyes to see how special it can be to be part of a good church family and community.”