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Pastor to the Chaplains

In a visit to Camp Lejeune, James Denley reassures those ministering to Marines and sailors.

CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina — Now that COVID-19 is unofficially transitioning from a pandemic to endemic stage, one of James T. Denley’s goals is to return to visiting military installations to connect with as many Assemblies of God chaplains as possible.

Denley is the denomination’s military representative/endorser for the 174 AG active duty chaplains serving around the nation. As such, among his primary roles is pastoral care of chaplains in the field. On a recent trip to the massive Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Denley visited with the four AG chaplains stationed here.

Three years ago, Denley succeeded Scott McChrystal as the Fellowship’s military endorser/representative. Denley, 63, is a retired Navy chaplain. In 2019, he finished a 28-year active duty career to accept the AG post.

Earlier this month, Denley spent a full two days at sweltering Camp Lejeune, engaging with the AG chaplains in one-on-one meetings as well as meals — including a farewell dinner with all chaplains and their families. Camp Lejeune has 38,778 active duty personnel. Along with its six satellite facilities, the duty station encompasses 156,000 acres and includes 14 miles of beaches along the Atlantic Coast, making it an ideal training ground for amphibious assaults. The terrain also includes mile after mile of thick pine trees.

Denis N. Cox, who has served as force chaplain for the II Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) at Camp Lejeune since April 2021, appreciated that Denley made the 1,100-mile trip. While Denley regularly talks to chaplains over the phone or a Zoom call, in-person meetings provide a more personal approach to care.

“His visit means everything to me,” says the 59-year-old Cox, a captain who directly supervises 62 MEF chaplains and indirectly oversees 78 Camp Lejeune chaplains. “It validates my ministry. It encourages me to do better. I need my endorser to hold me accountable.”

In addition to Cox, AG chaplains on site are Cmdr. Jerry Durham, Cmdr. James M. Pugh, and Lt. Derek M. Henson.

On the surface, the soft-spoken Denley may appear restrained. But around military personnel, he is the ideal engrossed and unruffled pastoral counselor, offering encouragement and advice from a quiet strength. While addressing him as “sir,” the AG chaplains nevertheless view him as a mentor and friend. Denley lets them know it’s OK to call or write about problems they face once he returns to the AG national office in Springfield, Missouri.

“Our families are the heart and soul of what we do,” Denley tells AG News. “If our families are not healthy, it affects everything we do.”

Even before the stress of deployment, issues chaplains might face include dealing with bureaucratic red tape, conflict with superiors, working with other chaplains who may not take the Bible seriously, navigating how to find affordable off-base housing, or figuring out what to do after retiring.

“Our chaplains have to keep growing, despite the realities around them,” Denley says. “Their personalities are different, but they all are focused on doing the Lord’s work and making a difference, glorifying God in the process. They go out with energy and have a good reputation.”

Denley understands the pressures of military life and he knows Camp Lejeune, being stationed here from 1995-98. Although the town has added many restaurants and shopping areas since his stay, there remains a plethora of bars, strip clubs, pawn shops, gun stores, and tattoo parlors on the periphery.

Of paramount importance to Denley is ensuring that the chaplains are spiritually strong, as well as feeling fulfilled in serving the Lord. It’s challenging enough ministering to the men and women at the camp. Some of the teenage recruits who arrive in search of adventure have never flown in a plane, never been away from home before. Their ability to make it as a Marine depends on acclimating to an unfamiliar environment in a relatively short transition period.

Denley reiterates the importance of the individual soul to the chaplains. An encounter with a chaplain, however brief, may be the first conversation a young Marine or sailor has ever had with a member of the clergy.

“They need to keep in mind that Jesus died for that kid,” Denley says. “No one else may have told them that.”

Denley says AG chaplains are making a tremendous impact. In the five years before the onset of the coronavirus, AG military chaplains conducted 27,534 worship services, led 12,966 people to the Lord, and water baptized 2,998 individuals.

Alcohol and drug abuse remain a major obstacle for some Marines and sailors to find success in their career. In the near future, Denley hopes that chaplains will be able to facilitate the Ready Now Recovery nonresidential program of Adult & Teen Challenge.

Bottom photo: Chaplain James Denley (right rear) gathers for a meal with Assemblies of God chaplains and their families in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.