Faith on the Firing Line

“Many dream of becoming soldiers, few of becoming military chaplains.” An interview with János Szabó PhD, the first military chaplain in Hungary

News April 6, 2022

06 April 2022 | Pecel, Hungary [Robert Csizmadia with tedNEWS]

János Szabó PhD has been ministering as a pastor in the Hungarian Union Conference (HUC) since 1995. He is a successful church planter, passionate about spreading the Gospel, sharing Christ’s compassion, and using creative evangelism ideas. His passion for mission led him to minister to cancer patients and eventually become the president of the National Association of Cancer Patients. His love for innovative evangelism led him supporting the Hungarian chapter of the Adventist Motorcycle Ministry as their chaplain. His latest faith adventure led him to become the first Adventist army chaplain in Hungary.

Szabó supporting the Hungarian chapter of the Adventist Motorcycle Ministry [Photos: courtesy of János Szabó / Adventist Media Exchange CC BY 4.0]

Since 1848, army chaplains have served in the Hungarian Defence Forces. Initially, the role of army chaplain was reserved for Roman Catholic priests. However, the two 20th century world wars increased the demand for chaplains, with protestant and Jewish chaplains incorporated. Szabó is first ever Adventist chaplain. His functions are similar to that of a pastor: to perform weddings and funerals, to conduct worships, lead Bible studies, and to counsel soldiers and their families. But that is where the similarities end…

Robert Csizmadia

How is the role of an army chaplain different from the role of a church pastor?

János Szabó

Even routine tasks become very special because the recipients are soldiers. Because army chaplains take care of soldiers, they can be sent to accompany them on missions abroad, such as peace keeping missions. In this way, most areas of military life are open to an army chaplain, which is closed to a civilian pastor.

RC: It sounds like a very serious and physically challenging job; how did you manage the transition from the pulpit?

JS: It took me two years of training to prepare for my entry exam! It is not only your physical readiness but also psychological readiness that is measured. I needed to pass all these exams to get in. I had to pick a new fitness hobby to keep in shape.

RC: How did your family, friends and church receive welcome the news?

JS: My friends were not surprised that I ended up in this ministry. My family received my decision very positively. My sons and my wife are very proud of me, but particularly my wife, Tímea, is really worried for me as well. I have experienced the same positive attitude from the wider church and my local congregation. It is a very encouraging experience to have a supportive spiritual hinterland.

RC: Not all Adventists are happy to serve in the armed forces. What is your take?

JS: A military chaplain is an unarmed soldier. Some are worried that being a military chaplain means somehow “encouraging” wars and killing, but I believe we should serve all people.

RC: How did you become a pastor in the first place?

JS: Another pastor, Zoltán Szilasi, was very influential on this. I grew up in a family that wasn’t Adventist. This pastor’s life, how caringly and lovingly he received me at the local church had a great impact on me. Maybe this is why my calling to be a pastor is tied to helping people. Ever since becoming a believer, I wanted to help people and realised that being a pastor gave me an exceptional opportunity to help full time. What could be greater than leading people to Jesus?

RC: So, are you living your childhood dream of helping people?

JS: Yes. I lead one-to-one counselling sessions with the soldiers because I find that they are reserved in a bigger group, especially when it comes to talking about their personal lives and spirituality. For them, to talk about such topics seems like showing weakness. However, in a private setting they tend to really open. I very much like ministering to them because they have a simple, straightforward way of talking, and in turn expect simple, straightforward answers. This experience is teaching me to be more authentic, and to share the Gospel in a simpler and clearer way.  To be a soldier is to be part of a command structure – with short and concise commands, not a democratic place for debating. They expect something similar from me.

RC: What would you say to other pastors, should they pursue a specific ministry as well?

JS: There are plenty ways to serve God, not just as military chaplains. There are hospital chaplains, prison chaplains, and police chaplaincy – which is just being established in Hungary. I want to strongly encourage pastors to step out of their comfort zone, to go, and serve in places that lack a Christian presence. We need to be brave and step out into civil society, in addition to serving church members. My experience is that it has even a positive effect on the life of the local church, members solve a lot of challenges by themselves if they see their pastor busy on the mission field.

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