Ch. Lt. Col. Ernest (Jay) West is an Ordained Elder who is appointed to an extension ministry as a Chaplain in the United States Army. Jay grew up in Poca, WV, attending first Poca UMC and later Mt. Tabor UMC in Pinch, WV. Active in the church while growing up, what Jay truly remembers are his summers at Spring Heights. The experience of being “in church” while outdoors was the perfect fit for a young man whose mother encouraged him often to “get out of my house!” The woods around Poca were Jay’s playground, and Spring Heights was a grand and holy extension of that playground. As Jay thinks back on those days, he also is amazed at the adults who invested their time, talent, and prayers into his Christian faith – from his grandmother (who prayed that Jay would be a preacher) to folks at Mt. Tabor to Rev. Arnold Belcher who loved Spring Heights as much as Jay did.
After high school, Jay served in the Air National Guard for a few years, while attending West Virginia State and majoring in English Education. Graduation, marriage, and a job teaching at Poca High School seemed to satisfy any call God might have upon Jay. This lasted until an evening in the Fall of 1990, when Jay was helping clean up after a Fall Festival at Mt. Tabor. Jay states that he heard as plain as day, “this is your life’s work.” Jay was fairly sure God was not calling him to janitorial duties, but to ordination!
Jay went home and told his wife Pam. They laughed, prayed, and cried, and then he was willing to answer God’s call. Jay served one year as an Assigned Supply before moving to Ohio to attend Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO). While enrolled at MTSO, Jay served a local congregation in Ohio as a student pastor and then served for one year as an intern in the British Methodist Church. Jay found this to be very helpful as he spent days in classrooms learning theology and then returned to his local church to try to put this knowledge into practice. Jay states that this is one of the many things he loves about the United Methodist Church – the practice of intentional tension between the academic world of theological education and the practical world of the local church.
The official ordination process was started at this time and Jay joined a diverse group of ordinands that Jay fondly recalls did not agree on every detail of theology, but agreed that the United Methodist Church loved, accepted, and needed each one of them. This group included Rev. Amy Shanholtzer and Rev. Scott Sears, who Jay feels are his connection to the West Virginia Annual Conference to this day. While serving several churches in the annual conference, Ch. Terry Bradfield had several conversations with Jay about the possibility of military chaplaincy. Jay had no interest, but a seed was planted.
Local church ministry was the path that Jay was planning on after ordination. Jay served in local churches in Garrett County, MD, and Mineral County, WV. However, during this time, the Army offered a program where local church pastors could come into the Army, serve as a chaplain for three years and then evaluate if that was where God was calling them. That seed of curiosity which been planted in Jay made him want to see what Army Chaplaincy was all about. A three-year commitment has turned into 19 ½ years.
Jay entered the military again, but this time as a chaplain. The journey started at Fort Campbell, KY, then took him to Europe to be a radio chaplain for the American Forces Network (broadcasting daily devotions and weekly religious and news programs around the world), then to Arlington, VA, to be the chaplain for the Army’s Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, and then to Fort Stewart, GA, as chaplain to the 1st Armor Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, then received an assignment as the Deputy Division Chaplain at 3ID. Jay left Fort Stewart after being assigned to US Army Forces Command in Fort Bragg, NC, and then he was assigned as the Division Chaplain for the 1st Calvary Division, Fort Hood, TX. Jay is currently back in Virginia serving as the first Chief of Religious Affairs for the Defense Health Agency.
With each assignment has come different jobs and new responsibilities. When asked what Jay has enjoyed most so far in this journey, he states that his time as a Division Chaplain at Fort Hood. In this position, he was able to help younger chaplains grow in their ministries and confidence, as well as care for people during some challenging times. Just as the folks at Mt. Tabor UMC and Spring Heights had invested in Jay, he has enjoyed investing in others to help grown their ministries.
How we can pray for Jay: Give thanks for relationships within the United Methodist Church like he has with Rev. Amy Shanholtzer and Rev. Scott Sears, who remind him that the UMC has a huge tent for many different points of view.
Also, pray for our country as we seem to keep dividing ourselves into our own tribes and camps. Even within the church we only want to worship with folks who agree 100% with us. The military is a cross-section of America, and as our society and churches split into partisan groups, when people join the Army they often bring those ideas and beliefs with them. As an organization, the Army hasn’t always built the tent big enough, and but we are committed to bridging differences and learning to have honest conversations so that we can build a unified team.
Want to know more:
https://www.mtso.edu/ Methodist Theological School in Ohio
https://m.goarmy.com/chaplain.m.html Army Chaplain Corps
https://www.health.mil/About-MHS/OASDHA/Defense-Health-Agency Defense Health Agency