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Annual chaplains conference offers time of fellowship, encouragement

This week, Liberty University’s Center for Chaplaincy partnered with Liberty Baptist Fellowship (LBF) and the Liberty Church Network (LCN) to host the annual Liberty Refuel Chaplains Conference on campus.

Liberty University President Dondi Costin spoke at the university’s annual chaplains conference. (Photos by Matt Reynolds)

Liberty Baptist Fellowship offers endorsement and pastoral care to chaplains in various fields around the country and the world. Liberty Church Network works to form connections between pastors, churches, chaplains, and disciple-makers to further the Great Commission.

The event ran from Monday to Thursday, primarily at the Liberty Mountain Conference Center and welcomed 250 chaplains and spouses from different areas of ministry, such as military, healthcare, and prison ministry.

Several members of Liberty’s administration addressed attendees, including President and former Air Force Chief of Chaplains Dr. Dondi Costin, Chancellor and Thomas Road Baptist Church Pastor Jonathan Falwell, Board of Trustees Chairman and Evangelist Tim Lee, John W. Rawlings School of Divinity Dean Dr. Troy Temple, and Dr. Steven Keith, director of the Center for Chaplaincy and a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain.

Also featured at the event was current Air Force and Space Force Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Randall Kitchens. Kitchens was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1983 and has served as the twentieth Air Force chief of chaplains since 2021.

Other distinguished speakers included U.S. Army Command Chaplain Jack Stumme, LCN Director Rob Wetzel, and LCN President and REVO Church Pastor Nathan Cline.

“It’s an invaluable conference to encourage our chaplains in the Lord,” said Keith. “Our theme this year is to encourage them to be ‘ready and unafraid’ to go back into the mission field and be refueled, to serve the Lord with a joyful heart and with the strength of the Lord knowing that we are all helpless without the Lord. It’s a great reminder and an honor for chaplains to be on the front lines and an extension of the local church.”

Keith said he was grateful to have Costin participate in the event.

Liberty Board of Trustees Chairman and Evangelist Tim Lee

“It’s a Godsend that we have a president who totally understands chaplains. Once you’re a chaplain, you are always a chaplain. He’s a chaplain at heart and connected with us extremely well. A lot of it you can’t even put into words; we’ve lived the same journey and we’ve all been given orders to go around the world and try to do ministry, dragging our families with us.”

Costin is a retired Major General with 36 years of service in a military career that culminated as a senior leader in the Pentagon, where he served as the eighteenth Air Force Chief of Chaplains. An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Costin was endorsed by the Liberty Baptist Fellowship during his 22 years as a chaplain. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in operations research from the United States Air Force Academy and graduate degrees from Liberty  (M.A. in Counseling and M.A. in Religion), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Air Command and Staff College (Master of Military Operational Art and Science), Air War College (Master of Strategic Studies), and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (D.Min. in Evangelism and Church Growth; Ph.D. in Leadership).

Before beginning his role as Liberty’s president this past summer, Costin served five years as president of Charleston Southern University.

Costin preached on Wednesday from Judges 6, when God called the prophet and warrior Gideon to free the Israelites from the Midianites. He emphasized that the role of a chaplain is to bring glory to God and to follow His leading.

“You have been called and equipped,” he told the chaplains. “You have been called by God to be ‘ready and unafraid,’ to do the thing that nobody else is willing to do in the setting that you are called to do it. … Whatever kind of chaplain you are, you are doing things that most people don’t understand. You are doing it because that is what you have been called to do, and God is the one who calls you. Don’t forget it.”

About 250 chaplains and spouses attended the conference.

Keith, who also serves as the chaplain endorser for LBF, stated that the goal of the conference was to encourage chaplains to continue to preach the Gospel despite pressure from secular society to embrace pluralism (the belief that all religions are valid and true).

Chaplains, especially those serving in military branches, face high levels of stress both serving overseas and domestically. This stress often affects their families as well, who are subjected to constant moves during reassignments and sometimes go long periods of time separated from their husband or father. Including spouses in the conference allowed these women (or husbands of healthcare chaplains) to share their struggles with each other.

“We have wives here who are talking with other wives that have the same struggles, ‘Wow, your husband is deployed again and left you to raise the kids by yourself for the next six months or year, how’s that work?’ A lot of times the wives are the unsung heroes because they are the one’s holding a lot together when the chaplains are deployed out to war zones where they can’t take a family,” Keith said.

The conference served the additional purpose of providing mentorship and guidance for students in the Center for Chaplaincy. As a part of their classwork, they were required to submit reports on at least three speakers from the conference and to find a mentor among the conference guests. Students also participated in breakout sessions with chaplains during the week.

“One of the reasons we want to do this conference together is we want (students) to be learning from these chaplains who are ahead of them and out in the field. The students are being totally immersed with chaplains who have stories to tell, mentoring to provide, and encouragement to give. We hope they get tied up for career-long mentorship because we all need that. This is a tremendous opportunity for that to happen,” Keith said, noting Liberty’s Center for Chaplaincy currently has 28 residential students and over 700 online.

Dr. Steven Keith, a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain, serves as the director of Liberty’s Center for Chaplaincy.

Liberty University is the nation’s largest educator of military chaplains and prepares students for their roles in the ministry through an innovative curriculum along with a distinctive commitment to chaplaincy research, publication, and dynamic outreach.

Liberty Baptist Fellowship currently boasts a total membership of 523 chaplains. According to reported numbers from 337 of these chaplains, 2,861 people were led to Christ by these individuals in 2022-23 and 1032 of them were baptized.

The chaplains conference concluded with a closing dinner and praise and worship celebration on Thursday evening. The conference coincided with the Refuel Conference, hosted by TRBC in cooperation with the School of Divinity, with many of the visiting chaplains joining in on that conference’s festivities on Tuesday.

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