The many ministries of Chaplain Lembke
by Marc Hequet, Correspondent
Luther seminary alumnus michael t. lembke, ’82, who retired from 30 years in the military earlier this year, has shared his ministry across the globe on and off battlefields. A focus on service and word and sacrament fundamentals represent a consistent thread whenever and wherever he has served.
Lembke retired as a senior chaplain, a post in which he served 12 of the last 16 years under four generals, a lieutenant general and a major general. He has worked in 22 nations. Now, he’s awaiting a call to use his experience in strategic planning and action to pastor a civilian congregation.
Lembke brings a wealth of experience serving in challenging situations. He was first deployed in Desert Storm in 1991, later to the Balkans and twice more to Iraq, comforting the living and leading memorials for the fallen. Even out of combat zones, it was a tough job. When stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, he consoled that community after a gunman killed 13 in 2009.
Throughout his career, Lembke has lived—and served—on four continents, including North America, sometimes with family, sometimes without. It was always difficult for him to leave family behind—and it was most difficult the first time he left for Iraq in 1991, he remembers. On a rainy night in Germany, with their two young children in the back seat, his wife, Nancy, whispered, “Come back to me.”
Even without the pain of leaving family behind, Lembke admits that working in war zones is often challenging. Yet from the beginning, he felt strongly called to it. In 1991, while preparing to say goodbye to his family for the first time, he received a reassuring card from a fellow officer. “I received that card as a spiritual affirmation of my work and ministry,” he says, acknowledging that while it was written and sent by another person, to him it reflected God’s encouragement and support.
Although the Valparaiso University graduate felt called to ministry early, his interest in military chaplaincy emerged only in his first year at Luther Seminary in 1978. During the chaplaincy, he found that he liked the military’s firm hierarchy and that he also enjoyed the opportunity to keep physically fit. In addition, he appreciated the ELCA’s strong support for chaplains. So he signed up.
Lembke received a commission as a chaplain candidate in 1979 while still at Luther Seminary. That same year, Lembke married his wife, Nancy. Like his, Nancy’s ministry has changed over the years. She has done volunteer work in and out of the military and held full-time paying jobs as a social worker, counselor, victim advocate and family violence prevention educator at five locations, including Europe. At his retirement, she received the Army’s Superior Civilian Service Award.
Ordained in 1982, Lembke served in the Army Reserve as chaplain (first lieutenant) in Eugene, Ore., while a parish pastor there. He entered active duty as a chaplain (captain) in November of 1986, advancing through the ranks to chaplain (colonel) while serving around the world.
Looking back on his decades of military service, Lembke credits his success to the church. “I credit the solid preparation I received from Lutheran training, the mentoring from many Lutheran military chaplains and the continuity of word and sacrament that stayed me through 30 years of active duty,” he says.
The Lembke family has grown to include three grandchildren. His daughter, Heidi Johnston, pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Quincy, Mass., calls her father’s faith “foundational.”
Lembke is also a musician. A singer and guitarist, he finds that music breaks the ice with those who approach him and need counsel but may be shy or nervous about asking for help.
He’s also been a peacemaker over the years. In Bosnia, for example, Lembke asked religious leaders to “come together to talk to each other, learn more about each other and hopefully develop a sense of peace,” says retired chaplain and longtime friend Scottie Lloyd, pastor at Lutheran Church of our Savior in San Bernardino, Calif.
Once he finds the new congregation he’ll serve, its members can count on Lembke to continue his focus on word and sacrament— and encourage them to focus on another Christian basic: service, military or otherwise.
“Everyone who’s a U.S. citizen owes the country something,” he says. “That is the discussion I want to be part of.”