Q&A with Chaplain James Buckman

Chaplain James Buckman talks about his deployment in Antarctica.

Few people have ever visited Antarctica, but Chaplain (Air National Guard Lt. Col.) James Buckman was deployed there for nearly two months in 2019. Buckman, who also is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, Lake Forest, Ill., has served in the U.S. military for 36 years — 13 of those as a chaplain. He’s incredibly busy, but he loves both roles and is thankful to his wife, Cathy, and their five children for supporting him as he provides spiritual care to people in many different situations.

Why did you go to Antarctica?

A: I was selected by the Chaplain Corps at the National Guard Bureau to be the chaplain for all American servicemen, scientists and support staff in Antarctica during my deployment, which lasted 52 days. … Every week we had VIPs visiting — National Geographic, the BBC, congressmen, senators, foreign leaders, top military brass. … As the chaplain, I was often called on to give a tour of our chapel and talk about caring for the religious needs of a diverse community. I relished the opportunity to talk about our First Amendment and the importance of protecting this right wherever Americans find themselves.

What was a typical day like?

A: Weekdays began with a 6 a.m. Bible study in the Chapel of the Snows, unless I was out making a visit. Then I would have breakfast and begin my workplace ministry at McMurdo Station. The 1,200 scientists and support staff there work on a wide variety of projects. So, during the week, I would see our firefighters, hospital staff/patients, NASA folks and scientists at Crary Lab; call on our airmen working our two airfields, which are located out on the Ross Ice Shelf; have lunch with and provide counseling to our New Zealand partners (military/civilian) who are at Scott Base; … maintain contact with my parish back home; prepare for Bible studies and preaching; and vacuum/clean the chapel. There’s no janitor in Antarctica.

What were some of the challenges?

A: When you offer a Bible study, you will likely have very few LCMS church members in attendance. You could easily have a Muslim, Mormon, Jew, atheist, etc. An LCMS chaplain needs to be able to give a reason for the hope they have, but to do so gently and with respect. The military has made decisions which we do not agree with morally. Fortunately, our church body has a very strong endorsing agent who, with the president of our church body, has made it clear to the Armed Forces Chaplaincy that LCMS chaplains will not be performing certain functions due to our historic understanding of Scripture.

Was anything surprising about Antarctica?

A: How your body really does adapt to extreme cold. After being in the South Pole, I just have a whole different perspective on “cold” in America. More importantly, I was again surprised by how much people want to talk about faith, God and salvation. And I was definitely surprised to see how much this trip to Antarctica reinforced my belief in a six-day creation and a worldwide flood.

How do you balance being a parish pastor and a military chaplain?

A: Communication, transparency, gratitude, … prayer, and you simply have to work more hours.

Learn More
LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces

Megan K. Mertz

Managing editor of Lutherans Engage the World and chief copy editor for LCMS Communications.

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