Serving Those Who Serve
A conversation with Thomas L. Solhjem
Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Thomas L. Solhjem has served as the Army’s chief of chaplains since 2019, leading the Chaplain Corps in providing spiritual support to the Army’s soldiers and their families. Solhjem is the first Assemblies of God chaplain to hold this position. A graduate of North Central University in Minneapolis, Solhjem first enlisted in the Army in 1974 and was commissioned as a chaplain in 1988.
How do military chaplains serve armed forces personnel and their families?
Military chaplaincy is unique. We understand we’re operating in a pluralistic environment. We take care of all soldiers and all family members, regardless of whether they are people of faith. We do the things soldiers do, but we’re noncombatants.
We counsel. We preach. We come alongside. We celebrate when happy things in life are occurring. We’re there in the darkest night of the soul — and all the space in between.
We provide the opportunity for spiritual life, faith and belief. We bring soldiers to God, and God to soldiers, every day.
Why did you become a chaplain?
I came to faith in Christ as a young soldier. I was a drug addict from a broken home. I found new life amid the darkest time of my life.
A medic who was a person of faith came alongside and cared about me as a person and allowed his faith to shine through actions more than words. As a result of that relationship, I made a profession of faith and accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. The medic introduced me to a chaplain who became an influential person in my life.
That chaplain made such an impression on me I wanted to be like him. In Bamberg, Germany, in 1976, I prayed, “God, I’ll go wherever you call me to go, but I would really like to be an Army chaplain.”
I didn’t join the Army chaplaincy to become the chief of chaplains. I joined because I was called to serve soldiers and families.
It’s humbling to be sitting in this position, especially when I think of where I came from. God answered that little prayer in the chapel in Bamberg, Germany, in a way I can’t even begin to understand.
What have you learned about following where God leads?
Where God leads, He provides. God has proven himself faithful every step of the way. He provided relationships and opportunities. He took care of my family when I couldn’t be there for them.
When I look back over my life and ministry, I am not surprised by God’s faithfulness. But I am amazed.
“When I look back over my life and ministry, I am not surprised by God’s faithfulness. But I am amazed.” — Thomas L. Solhjem
What are your key initiatives in your current position?
We are focused on people and community. Those are two priorities.
The Army Chaplain Corps was formed on July 29, 1775, before the United States was even a nation. It was called into existence because George Washington saw the need to care for the soul of the Army.
I have four important lines of effort. The first is recruiting, bringing in quality people who can care for the soul of the Army.
The second is leadership, developing people to go out into the culture and effectively lead.
Then we talk about alignment, making sure we’re properly organized in our ministry efforts. We support commanders, so we need to be properly aligned across the Army.
The last line of effort is revitalization. We are constantly improving on ourselves and on what we deliver. We are revitalizing how we deliver ministry and how we develop people to do ministry. We live in changing times. The message doesn’t change but the methods do.
What advice do you have for other ministry leaders?
Everything in leadership is predicated on trust. Our relationship with the Lord is built on trust. I trust Him to save me. I put my faith in Him to do the things on my behalf I can’t. I lean heavily on the Lord’s help. As a leader, I am dependent upon Him.
Trust is an important ingredient in all your relationships. If you’re married, build trust in your family and your marriage. Build trust within your congregation and ministry. Whatever venue your ministry is in, trust is critical.
I often talk about the R’s. As a minister, you’re developing a reputation. You’re developing relationships. You’re developing responsible patterns of behavior. Hopefully, you’re gaining respect.
You’ll realize your full potential when you adhere to those basic principles. If you look at the Bible, you’ll see that those who succeeded were imbued with those characteristics.
None of us can accomplish anything alone. We need God’s help and agency every day. We need people in our lives who keep us grounded and connected.
Remember, we are all flawed. So, take responsibility for your mistakes. Be humble and transparent. Have empathy and compassion for those you’re leading.
In the country church I attended as a little boy, there was a picture on the altar of Jesus carrying the one lost sheep. We need to be willing to carry the wayward and bring them back into the fold.
What can local churches do to help military members and their families?
Our partnerships with local churches are absolutely crucial. This became clear to me within my first few years as a young chaplain.
One of the first major events for me was Desert Shield and Desert Storm, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I was part of the 82nd Airborne Division and was the first chaplain on the ground.
When we left Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the way the community and churches supported soldiers and their families was paramount. But you don’t just build those relationships in a crisis. You build them every day.
There’s no way the chaplaincy can take care of everybody. We are dependent upon partners to help us care for the soul of the Army.
It’s important for local churches to build relationships within the military community. Reach out to your chaplains. Get to know military people. Take an active interest in them.
Military members can become some of your best congregants. Serving is in their DNA. They have a desire to give and be a part of the community wherever they go.
As an Assemblies of God minister, I have made it a priority to maintain connections with my faith tradition and the AG. I attend local churches and build relationships with pastors.
Don’t wait for the military chaplain to come looking for you, though. Make yourself available.
Those partnerships are invaluable. They help build preparedness in our military to serve when called upon.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Influence magazine.