Photo: Air Force Principal Air Chaplain Mark Willis leading ANZAC Day service at Lone Pine.
By Naomi Giles
The life of a chaplain in the Australian Armed Forces takes you to many places, and more often than not, it’s out of your comfort zone.
But Air Force Principal Air Chaplain Mark Willis wouldn’t have it any other way. He feels he’s been blessed to find his calling, a perfect match of his twin love of ministry and aircraft, and he’s keen to promote the vocation to other pastors and leaders.
Mark was just 11 years old when an encounter with some Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilots, who flew into his home town of Charters Towers, ignited a passion for the air. As one of five children of the local minister, there was no money to put towards flying training, so Mark determined to join the Air Force.
“I thought I’d be a helicopter pilot for MAF, so I joined Air Force Cadets, did all the hard subjects at school and then halfway through Grade 11 they told me I needed glasses, and you needed 20-20 vision to join the Air Force, so the bottom of my world fell out,” says Mark.
After school, Mark tried to find a new path. After farming in Western Australia and some banking in NSW, he headed to America for a year to explore more deeply his faith foundations through a ministry course.
During that time, he met a couple of former World War One chaplains, which sparked an interest, and he also felt convicted to go into full-time ministry. Returning to Australia, he married Lisa and began training at Kenmore Christian College in Brisbane.
He met several more chaplains there from the forces and began to wonder if that could be his unique ministry path.
“I thought, ‘here’s my calling to ministry and my interest in the military coming together’, so when I graduated, I asked if I could go and serve as a chaplain in the Air Force,” he recalls.
Instead, he was encouraged to serve in a local church first before chasing his dream, and so began to serve at the Sunnybank Church of Christ in Brisbane.
Mark loved the experience of leading a local church but was soon released to begin exploring chaplaincy. Mark and Lisa continued to serve at Sunnybank for nine years, with part-time Army Reserve chaplaincy alongside. In 1996, he stepped into full-time Air Force chaplaincy and began to immerse himself in the lives of those he was called to serve alongside.
It’s been a rewarding 30 years for Mark, who has found his way from a hands-on role as a support chaplain to overseeing and mentoring other chaplains, to senior support roles and now in the highest office as the Director-General of Chaplaincy overseeing the management and strategic direction of the entire Air Force Chaplaincy branch.
Mark believes chaplaincy is more relevant than ever, with an open door into sharing life with people across cultures and religions and holding space with people in some of their darkest moments.
“When the bombs are falling, and the bullets are flying, people start to think about life and what comes after and what’s important, and in some way, people realise that they need to get their life right with God,” says Mark.
Mark shares that because of the strong legacy of chaplains who’ve gone before, there’s little resistance to a padre’s presence among the troops, and they are more likely to be welcomed into a conversation than shut out of it.
“Chaplaincy is very well regarded in the military. In this age where well-being is a focus, we speak very strongly into the social and spiritual well-being of our aviators with their families,” he says.
And opportunities are waiting to be taken up all over the nation, with over 40 part-time chaplains needed in the Army Reserve and 12 in the Air Force.
Mark is keen for pastors and leaders to consider taking up part-time chaplaincy roles, saying it’s a mission field unlike what you’ll find in the local church.
“You’ll never look back; you’ll wish you came into defence earlier than you did, and you are working in a real mission field where many people are yet to be convinced of the truth of the Gospel,” he says.
Mark says strong character and support is needed to flourish in the role.
“You need to have a personal resilience, ensure that your spirituality is of the highest order, that your connection with the local church community is strong because it would be too easy to fall if you don’t have those things in place,” he warns.
And there are fringe benefits for the local church too.
“If a local church can say that part of our ministry to the nation is to release our pastor to chaplaincy without financial implications, then that’s a good thing. And know that your minister will come back enriched and refreshed from it,” says Mark.
And what about the danger? In his six overseas deployments, Mark admits danger is present, and the closest he’s been to an exploding rocket was around 250 metres away. These experiences of being with troops give the chaplains the understanding to listen and help those struggling.
“When you hear the stories of the soldiers who have been at the pointy end, having to fight for their lives, it scars them, and can leave them conflicted because they have had to act against their internal moral code,” says Mark. “Chaplains are the best-placed people in the Defence Force to help, because they have incarnationally journeyed with the troops, seen things, and participated, and can speak into that place.”
Mark shares that chaplains often refer to their role as being the presence of Christ in the dark places of a person’s life.
“Chaplains report back to me that troops often say things like, ‘Whenever I saw you, Padre, I knew we were going to be ok; you’ve been my rock throughout this whole deployment’”, shares Mark. “We know it’s not us, but the One for whom we stand; it’s Christ – the light that shines through our witness.”
If you are interested in finding out more about Chaplaincy in the Australian Defence Forces, please contact us at [email protected]